For months, China and the United States have tried — and mostly failed — to establish a “floor” under downward spiraling ties. No one expected that a punctured balloon would send relations reeling again.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping began his third term by modulating the aggressive tone that had become a hallmark of Beijing’s interactions with Western democracies in recent years. That newfound pragmatism is already under pressure. The Chinese Foreign Ministry swung rapidly from expressing regret to issuing threats — from making an almost apology for what it said was a weather balloon accidentally blown off course to protesting the U.S. response as a “violation of international practice” worthy of potential reprisals.
In that highly charged environment, Chinese experts are not hopeful that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Beijing, postponed because of the balloon, will be revived soon.
“This matter is very destructive and will have a long-term negative impact. It will make it more difficult to improve and thaw China-U.S. relations. This I fear is an indisputable fact,” said Xin Qiang, deputy director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.
Time may not be on China’s side if it wants to have a constructive high-level meeting soon. Top Chinese Communist Party leaders will be busy in early March at the annual meeting of parliament.
If the process takes too long, it could be disrupted by a possible visit to Taiwan by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), at which point “there’s no need to talk about whether [Blinken] will come or not,” Xin said. “Even if he does, he won’t be received.”
To contain fallout, China will need to find a credible way to spin events that will appease Washington without appearing to capitulate. Doing so will not be easy, especially when the United States is in the process of examining components retrieved from the balloon’s debris field in the Atlantic Ocean.
“We will at minimum have to wait until the balloon incident subsides before discussing [Blinken’s] visit to China again,” Ren Xiao, a former Chinese diplomat and professor of international politics at Fudan University. “All the preparations and coordination for his visit to China need to be repeated, and everything is still unclear at present.”
Like many influential commentators, Ren blames Republican pressure on President Biden to look tough on China for the seriousness of the diplomatic fallout.
Even if it was a reconnaissance balloon, the commonplace nature of spying should have meant it didn’t become a crisis, but the White House had to act tough on China and cancel the trip to show resolve, Ren said, adding that “attitudes toward the balloon are largely political.”
But China’s initially uncertain response also allowed the incident to escalate.
“It appears that the significance of the incident took the Chinese authorities by surprise,” said Etienne Soula, a research analyst at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, part of the German Marshall Fund. “As late as Friday, when foreign media questions made it apparent that the story was blowing up, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was giving curt and dismissive answers instead of trying to get ahead of the story.”
The response may have been complicated by an ongoing reshuffle of top officials. Qin Gang, who recently vacated the ambassadorship in Washington to become foreign minister, has not publicly commented on the incident. Wang Yi, head of the Chinese Communist Party’s foreign affairs apparatus, has also not commented despite a phone call with Blinken on Friday.
Instead, a show of resolve was left to Qin’s deputy, Xie Feng, a contender to replace Qin as China’s next top diplomat in the United States, who delivered “stern representations” to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Monday.
Chinese public messaging over the saga is a test of Xi’s apparent move toward easing diplomatic tensions with Western democracies. Spurred by a coronavirus crisis and economic pressure at home, he reemerged on the world stage in November with a message of unsentimental cooperation.
Although some analysts argue that the shift is primarily tactical, others see a sincere effort to tamp down tensions, citing as evidence the decision to appoint the relatively restrained Qin as foreign minister and replace Zhao Lijian, a leading “wolf warrior” diplomat, as ministry spokesperson.
But that softer approach has been under pressure in recent days as China’s stance hardened.
After Blinken halted his planned trip to Beijing over “a clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law,” China fired back that it was the United States that had broken with international practice by “using force” to resolve the issue.
Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning, asked at a regular briefing on Tuesday whether China would ask for balloon fragments back, said that “the airship is not the United States’ — it is China’s.”
China’s state media has been careful to call Blinken’s decision a “delay” and has stressed that neither side had announced details of the visit. But in reality, the trip was effectively canceled, said Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University of China.
Overall, the incident demonstrates that the China-U.S. relationship cannot be improved by “dialogue alone” and needs renewed “guiding principles” for any improvement to be possible, said Shi, echoing a common refrain from Chinese officials who blame the hard-line shift in U.S. policy toward China for hostilities.
“The balloon incident shows clearly that China-U.S. relations have sunk to an all-time low,” he said. “With a loss of mutual trust and effective communication, ordinary situations evolve into diplomatic standoffs. The strategic judgments both sides should try to avoid will most likely become commonplace.”