Analysis – Can China and the US talk again after the spy balloon incident? Reuters

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Balloons printed with the Chinese flag are placed on top of an American flag in the shape of a US map outline, in this illustration taken February 5, 2023. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

By David Brunnstrom and Michael Martina

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – When U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled his trip to Beijing this month, he chose his words carefully. China’s launch of a spy balloon high above the United States was unacceptable and irresponsible, he said, but he is postponing — not canceling — his visit.

A week later, a Chinese balloon was shot down, the trip remains unplanned, and the downing of two unidentified craft over Alaska and Canada on Friday and Saturday has raised questions about whether the adversary has sent more spy ships into North American airspace.

Still, analysts say, the two countries have strong reasons to resolve their differences. Now the question is when, not if, he will return to the negotiating table.

“Secretary Blinken … was talking about postponing the trip, not canceling it or cutting off all foreseeable high-level communications with the Chinese government,” US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said last week. “That’s not going to happen.”

China wants to revive its economy, which is still recovering from the defeat of the zero-epidemic policy of Covid. To that end, Chinese President Xi Jinping hopes to improve relations that sank to a dangerous low in August with then-Speaker of the US House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and convince US lawmakers not to push through new rules aimed at thwarting China’s efforts to produce advanced semiconductors.

And while American observers had little hope for Blinken’s trip to China, diplomats say the high-level visit is needed to put a “floor” in the relationship and make progress on issues ranging from Chinese fentanyl to Americans detained in the country.


Restarting the conversation won’t be easy. The flight of the balloon sparked outrage in Washington, with politicians criticizing the US military and US President Joe Biden for failing to shoot it down when it first entered US airspace.

China’s foreign ministry reacted angrily to Washington’s accusations of spying, saying the balloon was a civilian research craft and accusing the United States of hypocrisy.

The Pentagon said last week that China had rejected a US request for a telephone conversation between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe.

However, that doesn’t mean re-engagement can’t happen.

“While it is all too common for the Chinese to refuse to engage in the military-to-military channel when it is most needed – in a crisis – this does not mean that the Chinese have given up their efforts to buy time by calming relations with the US and the West,” said Daniel Russel, chief US diplomat for East Asia under former President Barack Obama.

US leaders also said communication channels must remain open even as they called the episode a violation of US sovereignty, informing dozens of countries of what they say is a global Chinese surveillance program and adding six Chinese entities to a trade blacklist.

Biden said the balloon should be brought down, but downplayed both the security threat and the impact on US-China relations.

On Thursday, he said the incident was not a major security breach, noting that “the total amount of intelligence gathering going on in every country around the world is overwhelming.”


In addition to high-level visits, there are opportunities for diplomacy. In a report from Berlin, Politico cited diplomats as saying that China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, whom Blinken was scheduled to meet in Beijing, will attend this year’s Munich Security Conference, scheduled for February 17-19.

Blinken will also attend the event, though neither side has said the two might meet there.

Another opportunity will be the trip of US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to China. Yellen said on Wednesday that she still hopes to go to China, without giving details on timing, and China’s commerce ministry said on Thursday that it welcomed her willingness to visit.

Although useful, such meetings can only lay the groundwork for the in-depth, high-level dialogue required for stable relationships.

Blinken could meet the Chinese in Munich or at the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting in India in March, but he must visit Beijing and meet face-to-face with Xi to ensure messages on tricky issues such as Taiwan and Russia get through, he said. is Russel.

New U.S. restrictions on Chinese companies and Republican committee chairman Mike McCaul’s announced desire to visit Chinese-claimed Taiwan in April “could be the straw” for such efforts, he added.

Bonnie Glaser, an Asia specialist at the German Marshall Fund in the United States, warned that domestic pressures in both countries may mean it is too soon for either side to re-engage.

“The Chinese don’t want to appear weak and probably don’t want to admit they lied (about the balloon). President Biden is also under pressure from Republicans in Congress who insist the balloon should have been brought down earlier,” Glaser said.

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