Alleged spy balloon complicates Blinken’s high-risk trip to China

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President Joe Biden and Xi met in person for the first time in November, signaling the potential for improvement in what is often described as the world’s most important bilateral relationship. The two leaders pledged to strengthen communication between their countries and agreed on Blinken’s visit to China.

One of the goals of the trip was to resume talks on climate change and military relations that China suspended after Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said at a conference in press this week. Blinken was also expected to raise the war in Ukraine and US concerns about China’s «no limits» partnership with Russia.

Wu Xinbo, dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, said one of the biggest problems in the relationship is a lack of mutual trust. The Chinese government «thinks that the United States contains and suppresses China,» he said, while the US government «thinks that China wants to challenge the leadership of the United States.»

After three years of lockdown due to the pandemic, China is eager to revive its economy. To that end, Xi has been on a diplomatic charm offensive, meeting with more than two dozen world leaders at home and abroad. The recent reassignment of Zhao Lijian, a former “wolf warrior” Foreign Ministry spokesman, has also been seen as a sign of softening.

The dovish tone has been reflected in Chinese state media, where a Wednesday commentary in the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, said that China and the United States «should strive to make the list of cooperation every longer, not shorter.» and shorter.»

But the mood toward China in Washington is increasingly hostile, said Gao Zhikai, vice president of the Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization, expanding former President Donald Trump’s tariffs to «all sorts of initiatives against China,» with a focus in Taiwan.

“I am very pessimistic about US-China relations, at least in the short term,” Gao said.

And that was before the news of the balloon, which appeared high above Montana after flying over the Aleutian Islands and across Canada.

US officials said the balloon posed no threat to civil aviation and had limited use for intelligence gathering, although Montana is home to one of three US nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

Taiwan timelines

Tensions between the United States and China, particularly over Taiwan, have raised fears of an armed conflict between the two superpowers. In a memo leaked to the media last week, Air Force General Mike Minihan said his «gut feeling» was that the United States would be at war with China in 2025, comments the Pentagon said «did not represent the opinion of the department on China”.

Experts point out that military officials have a budgetary incentive to suggest that war is near, and some criticize Minihan’s comments as exaggerated and potentially dangerous.

“I think we’re apparently trying to talk ourselves into a conflict that doesn’t have to happen,” Scott Kennedy, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said at a briefing this week.

Minihan’s prediction for 2025 is just one of several that have been put forward by top US officials. CIA Director William Burns said Thursday at an event at Georgetown University in Washington that the United States knew «as a matter of intelligence» that Xi had ordered his military to be ready for an invasion of Taiwan by 2027. though Burns said that didn’t necessarily mean that’s when it would happen.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in January that he seriously doubted the imminence of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

Varying timeframes undermine the credibility of US messages on Taiwan, he said jude blanchettea China expert from CSIS.

«What we’re effectively signaling is that we have no idea, and I’m not sure we understand how damaging that is,» he told the briefing.

Although China has not set any timetable of its own, it has kept the pressure on Taiwan since Pelosi’s visit, sending fighter jets toward the island almost daily. Planes are also crossing the median line, an unofficial boundary in the Taiwan Strait, much more frequently than in the past.

China has accused the United States of «hollowing down» its one-China policy, under which Washington recognizes Beijing as China’s only legitimate government and has only unofficial relations with Taiwan. Beijing views visits like Pelosi’s as support for formal Taiwanese independence, and is likely to respond aggressively to any visit from his successor, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who has said he too would like to visit Taiwan.

The United States is «consistently challenging China’s bottom line» on the Taiwan issue, Wu said.

Michael O’Hanlon, director of foreign policy research at the Brookings Institution, said the Biden administration should assure China of its commitment to the one-China policy, while China should reaffirm that it has no intention of attacking Taiwan militarily.

“We just have to avoid this war that some people seem to think is so likely,” he said, “and get things back to the kind of relationship where we have a lot of disagreements, but also some areas of cooperation and a more professional tone.” .

Jennifer Jett and Larissa Gao reported from Hong Kong and Megan Lebowitz from Washington.

isaac lee, abigail williams , patrick smith and Monica Alba contributed.

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