The F-22 Raptor fighter that flew from Virginia to South Carolina on Saturday and downed an alleged Chinese spy balloon with a missile strike brought high drama to the latest crisis in US-China relations.
But hopes of a possible stabilization of rocky ties had already been punctured after the balloon – which Beijing insisted was a wayward “civilian unmanned aerial vehicle” collecting meteorological data – flew over North America earlier that week. flew up, the week US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was preparing. Will go to China to meet President Xi Jinping.
Blinken canceled his trip on Friday, saying the balloon relocating the US in its flight across the country had violated US sovereignty. In a rare apology, Beijing expressed “sorry” and said strong winds caused the meteorological balloon to go astray. The US rejected the explanation, saying it was clearly a spy balloon.
As US Navy ships sailed off the coast of South Carolina to recover the wreckage for analysis, Beijing said the use of force was a “clear overreaction and a grave violation of international conventions”.
Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund, said the Biden administration had concluded that China had committed a “hostile act” and that the impact on the relationship “should not be underestimated”.
“The window of opportunity to ‘put China-US relations back on the path of stable development’ that Biden and Xi agreed to do in Bali may be missed,” he said, referring to the G20 leaders’ meeting . november.
A person familiar with US administration thinking said China has “completely undermined” efforts to put “a floor” under the relationship.
“When China is openly undermining it in such a visceral way for the American people. , , It really undercuts what Blinken was going to do,” the person said. While the US was committed to trying to mend the relationship and advance common global interests, it “will take two to tango”, the person said. “Our goal remains the same . . . but we need to see the integrity.
Ivan Medeiros, a former top White House Asia adviser, said the two countries were now in “jump-ball territory”, meaning it was unclear how things would unfold but much would depend on Beijing’s next steps.
Medeiros said, “They’re remorseful because obviously it’s their fault, but if they play the angry card now, we’ll be entering very contentious ground.”
One question that may suggest how China will react is whether Xi approved the mission or was unaware of it. In 2011, the US assessed that then Chinese President Hu Jintao was unaware that the PLA had tested a stealth fighter just hours before meeting with then US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
The person familiar with the administration’s thinking said the US does not know whether Xi is aware of the mission.
Some experts believe the regret from China on Friday suggested Xi had been captured. One theory is that the Chinese president is unlikely to approve such a mission at this time because of his aggressive drive to bring business back to China and the need to secure better relations with Washington.
Dennis Wilder, a former top CIA China analyst, said the incident could lead to further tensions, especially if Washington confronts Beijing with hard evidence. “There is a risk of more aggressive Chinese surveillance of US reconnaissance flights that fly daily over the East and South China Seas, increasing the potential for accidental collisions.”
Blinken said that flying the balloon over the US was “detrimental to the important discussions we set out to have” during his visit.
But Chinese officials were already skeptical about America’s willingness to take the measures, especially after Washington recently agreed to more technology controls aimed at China and struck a base-sharing deal with Manila.
The balloon episode also comes as Chinese officials prepare for a possible visit to Taiwan by US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Republican lawmaker. The PLA launched its largest ever exercise around the island in August when Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei.
A former Chinese diplomat said, “Everything comes to naught if McCarthy visits Taiwan.”
In Washington, Biden bowed to pressure from Republicans to shoot down the balloon before it reached the Atlantic. The US has not said whether the balloon transmitted information back to China in real time during the flight or whether the PLA would have had to retrieve the balloon to access any intelligence.
Wu Xinbo, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University, said the situation was instigated by members of Congress. Wu said, “The balloon issue was floated by aggressive congressmen to block Biden from slowly improving relations with China.”
Wu argued that if it was indeed a spy craft the US would have taken action “long ago”. US officials have said that the balloons were not shot down on the ground to avoid possible casualties on the ground and that they had received intelligence when they flew over the US.
Medeiros said that while China had been relatively measured in its response, much would depend on whether Xi caved in as Chinese citizens were watching video of the incident.
“Maybe Xi Jinping will change his tune and feel the pressure to respond assertively. , , Then we were off to the races,” he said.
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