Anthony Blinken’s two-day visit to China was supposed to start on February 5, but the US Secretary of State’s first trip to Beijing in several years fell through. The reason for this was a Chinese balloon that appeared in American airspace, because of which the PRC was suspected of espionage. The trip of the head of the State Department was intended to lay the foundation for the normalization of relations between Washington and Beijing on the most acute aspects, including the issue of Taiwan. These plans have now been put on hold indefinitely. At the same time, the incident with the balloon still does not put an end to the chances of restoring dialogue, according to experts interviewed by Izvestia.
The US Secretary of State’s first visit to Beijing in four years was disrupted after a Chinese-made “second moon” appeared in the American sky. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the visit of the head of the State Department to the Chinese capital back in November at the G20 summit in Bali, after which preparations began for the event.
As part of the trip, Blinken was to meet with Foreign Minister Qin Gang, as well as with the Chinese leader himself. But just a few hours before the departure to China from South Korea, the Secretary of State canceled the visit – the reason was a balloon, the appearance of which in the sky over the state of Montana became known on February 2.
Photo: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
The US Department of Defense later said that the meteorological probe entered the American identification zone on January 28 near the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, and a couple of days later ended up in Canadian airspace. On January 31, he reappeared in the American sky – in the northern part of Idaho.
The balloon was shot down only on February 4 off the coast of South Carolina, but during the time that the Chinese balloon was over the United States, it was able to fly over several strategic facilities located in the continental part of the country, the Pentagon noted. The order to eliminate a suspicious air object was given personally by Joe Biden, and the US Department of Defense developed a variant of the safe destruction of the device, tracking its trajectory and activity, said Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin. After studying the equipment of the downed balloon, the military department came to the conclusion that the balloon served to collect intelligence.
Beijing, despite this, completely denies allegations of espionage. The Chinese Foreign Ministry emphasized that the PRC never intended and did not invade the land or airspace of any state, and what happened was “unfounded speculation and hype.” The appearance of a “civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological purposes” was explained in the department as follows: under the influence of westerly winds and with limited self-government capabilities, the balloon “deviated far from the planned course.”
As Vladimir Portyakov, chief researcher at the Center for Political Studies and Development Forecasts of the Institute of China and Contemporary Asia, emphasized, there really is no point in exaggerating this story from the point of view of geopolitical interests. The Chinese side clearly stated that the object was civilian and flew into the sky of the United States by accident, but in Beijing they foresaw the reaction of the United States, the expert told Izvestia.
Photo: REUTERS/Randall Hill
– There are several options why the United States seized on this incident and inflated it like that. The first is the reaction of the US military, which does not always take into account geopolitical interests and the peculiarities of bilateral relations. It may also be the result of internal confrontation in the United States, because not everyone in the United States is interested in the course of improving relations with China – there are “hawks” who were not satisfied with Blinken’s visit and possible normalization at all, – suggested Vladimir Portyakov.
However, the incident does not put an end to attempts to normalize the dialogue between the two world powers, although to a certain extent it still complicates them, the sinologist added.
As Yuri Rogulev, director of the Franklin Roosevelt Foundation for the Study of the United States (MSU), noted in an interview with Izvestia, the disrupted visit only confirms the complexity of relations that have recently reigned between the States and China. Moreover, one of the main problems is the Taiwan issue, the expert noted.
Relations between China and the United States reached a critical point due to the visit of the now former Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi to Taipei in August 2022. Then Beijing, which stepped up military activity near the island, considered the trip of the American politician a violation of the “one China” principle (the PRC authorities do not recognize the independence of the island, considering it part of its territory). Fuel was added to the fire by the statement of Joe Biden, who allowed the provision of assistance to Taiwan if mainland China tries to regain control of the region by force.
Photo: REUTERS/Randall Hill
– Formally, the United States recognizes that Taiwan belongs to mainland China, but at the same time maintains relations with Taipei, providing moral and military support to the island. In addition, the US is forming various new associations to oppose the PRC, trying to include Japan, South Korea and even Australia. So, how successful Blinken’s thwarted visit would be is a big question, – Yuri Rogulev stressed.
At the same time, the expert added, it remains unclear whether the authorities seized on the incident with the balloon to refuse the visit, or whether attempts to establish direct contacts and continue the dialogue should be expected.
According to the program coordinator of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) Konstantin Sukhoverkhov, the disruption of the visit will not globally affect relations between Washington and Beijing, since the trip of the Secretary of State has not been canceled, but only postponed indefinitely.
– Bilateral dialogue between China and the United States will continue, sharp corners will be tried to smooth out – especially where there is a possibility of maximum confrontation, because no one needs it now. In particular, America – they are engaged in the European direction in connection with the conflict in Ukraine, – he explained to Izvestia.
The expert acknowledged that Blinken’s move was abrupt, but this was more due not to the need to send a signal to Beijing, but to domestic politics. The decision not to go to China was aimed at the conservative part of American society, which turned out to be a good move to win over the part of the electorate that favors tough foreign policy actions to the side of the current administration.
Photo: REUTERS/Randall Hill
At the same time, the situation in the Asia-Pacific region, for dominance over which Washington and Beijing are fighting, continues to heat up. One factor could be an agreement between the US and the Philippines reached earlier this month. Now the US military has access to four more military bases in the country.
Earlier, in accordance with the Mutual Defense Treaty and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), US military personnel had access to five facilities in the Philippines. The increase in the American contingent in the Asia-Pacific region may become an additional factor in raising tension, Konstantin Sukhoverkhov is sure.
“And here everything depends on Beijing and Washington, how competently they will maintain a balance so that this does not turn into an escalation and would allow keeping channels and opportunities for dialogue open,” said expert Konstantin Sukhoverkhov.
At the same time, according to the Americanist Yuri Rogulev, the United States is unlikely to want a direct clash with China. Instead, the American authorities are using the traditional approach of forging coalitions and inciting states against China, using, among other things, territorial contradictions.
Konstantin Sukhoverkhov emphasized that there are many potential opportunities for escalation between China and the United States, from military-political to economic. Nevertheless, the situation, in his opinion, is unlikely to come to this: the economies of the two countries are so connected that the conflict will hit everyone at once, and this, of course, is not beneficial for both Beijing and Washington.