Chinese surveillance balloon is only latest setback in tense U.S-China relations Secretary of State Antony Blinken called off his trip to China after the discovery of a Chinese "surveillance" balloon over the U.S. It's the latest setback in an increasingly fraught relationship.

Chinese balloon punctures Blinken's plans, leaving U.S.-China ties adrift

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We're going to turn now to our China affairs correspondent, John Ruwitch, to talk through some of the implications of this balloon incident for U.S.-China relations. John, thanks for joining us.


MARTIN: So balloons don't usually cause diplomatic incidents, but this balloon appeared over the U.S., just as - Jenna just told us - Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to depart on a two-day trip to Beijing.


ANTONY BLINKEN: China's decision to fly a surveillance balloon over the continental United States is both unacceptable and irresponsible. That's what this is about. It's a violation of our sovereignty. It's a violation of international law.

MARTIN: And as we've heard, that trip is now postponed indefinitely. And today's shootdown of the balloon throws relations into even more uncertainty. So, John, this incident came at a pivotal time in China-U.S. relations, right? So talk a little bit about why that is and how the Chinese have responded.

RUWITCH: Yes. The Blinken trip, the would-be trip to China would have been his first or the first by a secretary of state in years. Relations between China and the U.S., of course, are in really bad shape. But in recent months, we've seen both sides really showing sort of an increased willingness to dial down their rhetoric and get back to talking. This shootdown happened at about 3:45 in the morning, Beijing time. It's possible the U.S. gave China a heads-up, but the government doesn't always react super quickly to stuff on the weekends and at nights.

So far, there's no reaction. China's response to this whole episode, though, has actually been fairly restrained. You know, China admitted that the balloon was theirs. They called it a civilian airship for scientific research and that it was blown off course. They've also done something quite rare, which is express regret over it. And on Saturday, it was interesting, in response to Blinken's trip postponement, that it didn't - Beijing didn't even acknowledge that Blinken had been planning to go to Beijing. So as you say, it's a pivotal time, and that probably has something to do with the way that China's responding.

MARTIN: Well, say more about that, if you would. They've expressed regret because it's a critical time. Help us understand that.

RUWITCH: Well, in November, President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met in Bali, and they agreed to more talks between officials, between the two countries to try to cool things off, stop things from getting worse in the relationship. And this Blinken visit was meant to carry forward momentum. It's something that both sides want. But now it's off, at least temporarily. And Susan Shirk, a veteran China watcher at the University of California, San Diego, says that reflects a deeper problem.

SUSAN SHIRK: It's evidence of just how brittle U.S.-China relations are right now. I mean, stuff happens. And if the relationship has no resilience, if the communication has not been well established between the two sides, it'll just throw things off track.

MARTIN: So, John, if both sides want to improve relations, can you just kind of help us understand why the U.S. reacted this way? - the Pentagon telling us that this isn't even the first time it has encountered one of these Chinese balloons.

RUWITCH: Right. And the Pentagon said it wasn't a threat, right? But this has been hugely symbolic. It's a violation of U.S. airspace and sovereignty. And as Jenna was saying a few minutes ago, the thing was visible with the naked eye. So it snowballed into a political issue, really. There was a chorus of U.S. lawmakers that piped up over it, and the Biden administration really had to react. Blinken, for his part, you know, has said that he's still committed to managing the relationship with Beijing responsibly and that he'd be prepared to go to Beijing, quote, "as soon as conditions allow."

The challenge is really going to be rescheduling this meeting. It probably won't happen until they recover and assess the balloon debris. In about a month, China's parliament, the so-called two sessions, meets. Also, there's increasing talk of a possible Taiwan visit by Kevin McCarthy, the House speaker, possibly in the spring, which will stoke tensions. I talked to Yun Sun about this. She's a senior fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington.

YUN SUN: This post-deployment is going to have an expiration date. If it doesn't happen before the two sessions in China and if it doesn't happen before speaker of the house McCarthy's trip to Taiwan. It may not happen at all. The Chinese might feel that, well, we missed the opportunity.

RUWITCH: Yeah. This is balloon thing has really complicated the situation.

MARTIN: So what is the best-case outcome now for U.S.-China relations?

RUWITCH: Well, in the short term, I think the best case is that they reschedule the meeting soon, and they have some productive talks. I mean, the bar is very low. Nobody was expecting big breakthroughs from this meeting. Longer term, the outlook for China-U.S. relations isn't so great. The U.S. has a long list of grievances against China.

And the Chinese government, of course, doesn't think that Washington is all that sincere about wanting to stabilize relations. They think the U.S. says one thing and then goes off and keeps doing things to hurt China's interests, like choking it off from the global supply of microchips, adding more military bases in China's periphery, trying to convince friends and allies around the world to also see China as a strategic competitor, if not an outright threat.

You know, it's worth noting that this week, President Biden will deliver his State of the Union address, and he will no doubt refer to China in those terms. I mean, for his part, on the other side, you know, analysts think that Xi Jinping probably hasn't changed his stripes. You know, even though Beijing's been on this charm offensive for a while, he's still the same leader that he was. So the path ahead isn't easy. And if they're not even meeting and talking, it's hard to see how things get much better.

MARTIN: That is NPR's John Ruwitch. John, thank you.

RUWITCH: You're welcome, Michel.

MARTIN: And we will continue to take a close look tomorrow at U.S.-China relations when we speak with Senator Michael Bennet about why he thinks TikTok, which is owned by a Chinese company, should be removed from Apple's and Google's app stores. That is tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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