The Irish Times view on US/China relations: diplomacy blown off course

The row over a Chinese balloon which appeared over the US reflects much more fundamental tensions

After turbulent weather blew what the Chinese claimed was a high-altitude “meteorological” balloon into US airspace, prompting a diplomatic incident, a much-anticipated visit by secretary of state Antony Blinken to Beijing was postponed on Friday by the US.

The balloon was later shot down, amid ongoing exchanges about its purpose, which the US claimed was surveillance. China responded angrily and the affair seems to have scuppered any prospect of an early improvement in relations.

The visit was never going to be easy. China-US relations are frosty, both economically and diplomatically. President Biden appears determined to “decouple” the two great powers’ economies, disentangling complex supply chain dependencies to end four decades of gradual integration of China’s economy with the West. Washington appears increasingly comfortable with the idea of a long-term economic conflict with Beijing.

Nor is China showing any inclination to bend. President Xi Jinping was elected to an unprecedented third term on a platform emphasising nationalism, Marxism and ideology over markets and pragmatism. This suggests China is itself determinedly heading for further confrontation.


Donald Trump may have departed, but his America First punitive trade measures – tariffs on steel and aluminium exports, as well as various export curbs on Chinese telecoms companies – are still in place. In October, the administration’s concerns about China’s tech ambitions culminated in the most stringent controls by the US government on tech exports to China in decades to shut off access to advanced semiconductors. And Washington is considering similar restrictions on US-China biotechnology and clean energy ties.

China’s bellicose language towards Taiwan has stoked fears of invasion and the danger of war embroiling the US. And even in the past few days, the strengthening of military commitments by the US to regional allies Japan and the Philippines, and its plans to arm ally Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, are contributing to escalating tensions.

Regional competition for strategic alliances, seen by Biden as vital, is intense. China, for example, has invested more than $5 billion (¤4.63 billion) in Indonesia in the first nine months of 2022, compared with about $2 billion from the US, and Beijing-Jakarta relations have improved significantly.

Blinken was expected to pour oil on the troubled waters. The US has been particularly keen to prise China away from the latter’s support for Russia over Ukraine, but with no success.

Europe will watch on nervously. It does not support total demonisation of China and has important trade links at stake. It worries about the road it is being taken down.