US and China: Fragile relationship blown off course by a balloon over Montana

Hope of an improvement in relations stalled as Antony Blinken’s visit is postponed over surveillance claims

United States secretary of state Antony Blinken’s planned visit to Beijing this weekend was meant to put “guardrails” on Washington’s competition with the rising power of China. But the rapprochement between the world’s two leading powers is so fragile that it was blown off course by a balloon floating above Billings, Montana.

Blinken postponed his trip after the Pentagon said it was a Chinese surveillance balloon, although Beijing said it was a civilian weather balloon that drifted accidentally into US airspace. Neither side has set a new date for the visit, which could have seen Blinken meeting president Xi Jinping as well as foreign minister Qin Gang.

Both sides had been playing down expectations ahead of the planned visit, with warnings from both capitals that their red lines, particularly on Taiwan, were immutable.

But the first visit by a US secretary of state since 2018 would have come as the end of its zero-Covid policy has seen China opening up economically and reaching out diplomatically to partners and rivals alike. It was planned after a meeting between Xi and Joe Biden in Bali last November that saw both leaders seek to dial down the temperature in a relationship that has threatened to boil over in recent months.


Last December, a US surveillance aircraft and a Chinese fighter plane flew within three metres of each other in the South China Sea. Tensions have been high since former House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last August prompted Beijing to conduct an unprecedented series of military exercises that surrounded the island.

“The US should put itself in China’s shoes. If China sent the military and naval ships to Hawaii and the coastline of the US or declared support for pro-independence forces in the United States, that would be a threat,” said Wang Yong, professor of international studies and director of the Centre for American Studies at Peking University.

When he met Xi in Bali, Biden restated Washington’s commitment to the One China policy, said the US did not support independence from Taiwan and was not seeking to change China’s system of government. But Biden has also said a number of times that the US would defend Taiwan militarily if China launched an invasion, in comments the White House later tried to walk back.

Donald Trump ramped up hostility to China when he took office in 2017, for the first time identifying China rather than Russia as America’s largest strategic competitor. Trump’s slurs against China over coronavirus, which were sometimes overtly racist, further poisoned relations between Washington and Beijing.

Biden entered the White House promising to restore America’s alliances around the world but his administration has maintained a tough stance towards China. This is reinforced by an increased focus in Congress on China as a threat to the US, with hawks in the ascendant in both parties.

Wang blames the rise in hostility towards China on America’s “chaotic political development” and its domestic issues of a widening wealth gap, gun violence and interracial conflict.

“China has become a scapegoat for the public policy failure, and the problems in the United States. I think that is very dangerous. America’s problems have become a threat to international peace and development,” he said.

“Given these political realities in the United States, I think that leaves limited space for China’s response to the US. And China also has a domestic atmosphere, domestic politics. The Chinese leadership have to demonstrate the will and ability to safeguard China’s national interest, especially on the issue of Taiwan.”

At the 20th congress of the Chinese Communist Party last October, Xi restated Beijing’s commitment to pursue reunification with Taiwan by peaceful means but he said that China could never rule out the use of force. US general Mike Minihan predicted last month that the US and China would go to war over Taiwan by 2025, a view that was shared by Michael McFaul, chairman of the House foreign relations committee.

Zhu Feng, professor of international relations at Nanjing University, said Washington’s policy towards Taiwan changed from one that acknowledged Beijing’s aspirations towards reunification because its policy towards China changed.

“Today if you look at America’s policy on Taiwan it’s completely, dramatically shifted. To what? To such Americans’ description, the Taiwan issue is the US and other democratic countries working together defending Taiwan for its liberty and democracy. So the Taiwan issue has never been more inflammatory for some sort of escalating hostility between both sides,” he said.

Zhu believes Washington’s China hawks would welcome military action from Beijing over Taiwan as an excuse to sanction China and create a sense of emergency that could unite US public opinion. He thinks China’s leaders would be unwise to dance to such an American political tune and he rejects the idea of a timetable for reunification.

“We should keep a low profile. Unless Taiwan declares independence illegally, there’s no way China can use military force against Taiwan,” he said.

“I see no timetable at all because such timetable setting is very stupid. It actually will leave the US some sort of mandate to intervene in some sort of very forceful manner. So personally, I’m strongly opposed to any timetable setting.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year has strengthened the US geostrategically, pushing its European allies deeper into Washington’s security embrace while expanding the market for American liquified natural gas. It has damaged China’s relationship with the European Union and set back the cause of European strategic autonomy, which Beijing wants to encourage.

European leaders complain that China does not appreciate the immediacy of the threat Putin’s actions represented for their countries, accusing it of supporting Moscow. But Wang argues that Beijing’s approach to the Russian action is more complicated and that it sincerely wants the conflict to end as soon as possible.

“China wants an international strategic balance. That means that the US should not expand its hegemonic status to impose a threat to rising countries like China. From this perspective, China and Russia and maybe some countries in Europe share a similar approach to the US expansion in international affairs,” he said.

“So I think from this perspective of the international strategic balance, the total defeat of Russia might be not in the interest of China. But that doesn’t mean that China will support Russia’s position on the Ukraine war. China has made it very clear that all countries should follow the United Nations charter to respect the sovereignty of countries. China is against any possibility of the nuclear war.”

Zhu believes that, regardless of how the Ukraine war ends, it will leave Russia more vulnerable and he warns that if China allows Taiwan to become an Asian version of what he calls “the Ukraine trap” it will play into the hands of US China hawks. He acknowledges that the war in Ukraine has driven a wedge between China and Europe but he thinks it also has the potential to unite them in a common purpose.

“Beijing seems to me to be walking on a tightrope. On the one hand, we will not offer military weapons or other necessities Russia needs. But on the other hand, we’re also not just completely turning our back on Moscow because Russia is an irremovable neighbouring power to China,” he said.

“The longer the Ukraine war is protracted, the more damaging it is to Europe, to China and to the world. That’s why I consider that China and Europe could have a very serious discussion on some sort of shared vision. We can work together to pull Putin back or help terminate the Ukraine war.”