BEIJING — Beijing’s abrupt shift from expressing regret to threatening retaliation over the United States’ claims about a spy balloon reflects the domestic imperative for Xi Jinping to show he’s standing up for China against external pressure, further narrowing the window to reset ties before the U.S. election season gets into full swing.
This weekend was supposed to be a step forward, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken arriving in Beijing for the first such visit in more than four years. But the dispute meant it was spent trading barbs real and figurative, as an F-22 Raptor blasted the high-tech Chinese balloon out of the sky off the coast of South Carolina with a single Aim-9X Sidewinder missile.
Instead of establishing “guardrails” and holding high-level meetings — including possibly with President Xi — Blinken ended up postponing his trip until a date yet to be determined.
China, which says the device was a civilian climate research vehicle that unexpectedly drifted over American territory, denounced the United States’ “clear overreaction” in deciding to use force. “China will resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of the company concerned, and reserves the right to make further responses if necessary,” the foreign ministry said in a statement Sunday.
“This incident tells us we haven’t found the floor of the relationship,” said Drew Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. “The relationship is not heading in a positive direction and could deteriorate further.”
The balloon saga comes less than three months after President Joe Biden and Xi agreed to resume talks in their first face-to-face meeting as leaders in Bali, a detente that has largely held despite the United States’ efforts to support Taiwan’s military and curb Chinese access to cutting-edge semiconductors. While few expected major breakthroughs from Blinken’s scrapped visit, it was seen as an effort to preserve the status quo.
That’s vital to the economies of both countries since business links have held up despite the acrimony. Trade between the U.S. and China was on course to break records in 2022.
The question now is whether both sides can find a way to climb down without further escalation. It took weeks to get conversations back on track last summer after then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — a Democrat and key Biden ally — visited Taiwan. China responded by firing missiles over the democratically governed island that Beijing claims as its own.
Ties could be tested again if Kevin McCarthy, the newly installed Republican speaker, decides to follow through on an earlier pledge to make his own trip to Taipei. Presidential elections in the U.S. and Taiwan could ramp up tensions further, with Biden facing bipartisan calls to show strength toward Beijing.
U.S. lawmakers have expressed bipartisan outrage about the overflight. Republicans faulted Biden for not shooting down the balloon before it crossed the country, while Democrats portrayed his response as measured and firm.