The political uproar over a suspected Chinese spy balloon drifting over the United States did not just derail a planned visit to Beijing by the top U.S. diplomat, it also threatens to upset attempts by both countries to steady an increasingly rocky relationship.
The reaction in the United States to what appears to be a spying mission will have lingering consequences for efforts to stabilize ties – already near historic lows. Some U.S. lawmakers are demanding that President Joe Biden, a Democrat, hold China to account for what officials are calling an unacceptable violation of U.S. sovereignty.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who postponed a trip that was to begin on Friday, said he would be prepared to visit Beijing “when conditions allow,” but the administration could be hard pressed to quickly revive the trip short of China offering up serious gestures of goodwill, policy analysts said.
Daniel Russel, the top U.S. diplomat for Asia under then-President Barack Obama, said China’s “laughable alibi” that the aircraft was an errant weather balloon, didn’t help.
“This incident has soured the atmosphere and hardened positions and there’s no guarantee the two sides can successfully resurrect the ‘Bali’ momentum,” Russel said, referring to the November meeting between Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Indonesia where they agreed to increase communications.
Ties between the superpowers have frayed over the past few years and sank to their worst in decades last August, when then U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, prompting Beijing to conduct military drills near the Chinese-claimed island.