WASHINGTON (AP) – Monday should have been a day of modest hope in US-China relations. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due to be in Beijing, where he will meet President Xi Jinping in a high-stakes bid to ease ever-escalating tensions between the world’s two biggest economies.
Instead, Blinken spent the day in Washington after abruptly canceling his visit late last week as the US and China exchanged angry words over an alleged Chinese spy balloon shot down by the US. As bad as US-China relations were before Blinken’s planned trip, they are now even worse and there is little hope that they will improve anytime soon.
Although both sides say they will navigate the situation peacefully, mutual accusations, especially after the balloon drop on Saturday that sparked a sharp Chinese protest, do not bode well for a rapprochement.
The setback comes as both sides look for a way to potentially extricate themselves from a low point in ties that has left the world on edge.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby noted Monday that Blinken’s trip had been postponed, not canceled. But the prospect of another postponement remains uncertain.
“I would put this at a six” on a scale of 10, said Danny Russell, a China expert and former assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific in the Obama administration, of the damage to current diplomatic efforts between the two countries.
“The signals I’m seeing suggest there needs to be a pause and a line drawn under the incident, but as the drama moves through its final act, there seems to be every intention to reinvent the secretary of state’s trip,” said Russell, who is now vice president for international security and diplomacy at the Institute for Asian Society Policy.
The administration “will start with a serious deficit,” Russell said. “This is a setback, but it is not impossible to see a return. Without mismanagement, this is compensable.”
Blinken and senior Chinese officials plan to attend at least two international gatherings — the Munich Security Conference in mid-February and the Group of 20 foreign ministers’ meeting in India in early March — that could provide a venue for renewed engagement.
But the lost opportunity caused by the balloon incident can be difficult to recreate.
It’s not like the US and China aren’t talking. It is that they speak from extremely different points of view with very little room for deviation from entrenched positions that are often directly related to political conditions at home.
Military-to-military channels are in use, but have been hampered by China’s increasing incursions into Taiwan’s air defense zones and aggressive actions in the South China Sea. As a result, the US has increased reconnaissance flights and warship voyages through the Taiwan Strait.
Diplomatic channels remain open, but for several years they have been dominated by disagreements rather than reasons for potential cooperation, and are now filled with complaints from both sides about the bubble.
President Joe Biden and Xi agreed to Blinken’s visit during a November meeting in Indonesia. Biden may have hoped his top diplomat would return from China with some progress on issues ranging from trade, Indo-Pacific security and climate change to human rights and the status of Taiwan. Instead, he now faces a domestic political maelstrom just before his State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday.
Republican lawmakers have been sharply critical of what they say is Biden’s lackluster response to the balloon’s presence over US airspace. New GOP House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s expected trip to Taiwan this year is likely to be accompanied by fresh complaints about the administration’s approach.
Meanwhile in Beijing, after initially taking a relatively conciliatory response to the bubble, Chinese leaders have taken a much harder line, likely in response to a nationalistic public backlash. After apologizing for the balloon, which it said was a weather ship that mistakenly strayed into US airspace, China is now condemning the downing as an unacceptable violation of international law and standards that set back the potential for dialogue.
“Blinken’s visit to China offered a way to stabilize US-China relations,” said Da Wei, director of the Center for International Security and Strategy at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University. The delay has now “greatly reduced” the deadline for that, he said.
Quite apart from the political implications for both, the developments laid bare the extremely fragile nature of what many had hoped could be a manageable economic, political and military rivalry.
Tensions between the US and China, particularly over Taiwan, have been a source of deep concern for Washington and many of its allies. They worry that open conflict will destroy the global economy, and their concerns were exacerbated last year by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in which China largely sided with the Russians.
At the same time, China and the United States are on a collision course over other issues, including China’s increasing aggressiveness in the South and East China Seas, which has put US allies such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand on edge, not to mention Australia and New Zealand.
China’s continued crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, the human rights record in the predominantly Muslim western region of Xinjiang, the harassment and imprisonment of Christians and other religious minorities elsewhere, and the ongoing campaign against Tibetan leaders have become significant irritants to ties.
Over the past five years, Sino-US relations have entered a new and worsening stage of confrontation, conflict and competition, Da said, calling the current period “a new kind of cold war.”
“It’s very different from the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, but if we define the Cold War as the two largest countries in the world locked in fierce conflict and conflict in a way that doesn’t involve military and wars… they’re rapidly moving into in that direction,” said Da.
___ AP contributor Caroline Chen in Beijing contributed.