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Spy balloon row: High-altitude spying marks new low for US-China ties

05 February 2023

Even before America's top diplomat Anthony Blinken postponed his visit to Beijing, the US-China relationship was at an all-time low.
Just how low became painfully evident when a day before his departure, an apparent Chinese spy balloon over the state of Montana roiled the tensions he was trying to address.
Eventually, the Chinese foreign ministry claimed the unmanned airship was used for weather research and had blown off course.
The accompanying expression of regret suggested Beijing did not want the incident to mar the secretary of state's visit - the first of its kind in five years.
But the damage was done.
Hours after China's apology, the US State Department called off the trip.
Given how wide the rift has become, the fact that the trip was happening in the first place had been cause for celebration.
But now what remains is a sense of huge missed opportunity.
All along, US officials had made clear that this was not about breakthroughs. It was about talking.
"One of the ways you do that is making sure that you actually have good lines of communication," he said in a speech last month, calling for "putting some guardrails into the relationship."
That means restoring regular contacts and establishing working norms.
"I think the goal [was] to basically fast-forward this Cold War to its détente phase, thereby skipping a Cuban Missile Crisis," says Jude Blanchette, a China expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
It hasn't been an easy ride for the world's two biggest economies.
A Trump-era trade war, tensions over Taiwan and an increasingly assertive China under Xi Jinping derailed the relationship in recent years. And it plummeted further as China refused to condemn Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
Then came a meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit in November.
The two leaders expressed the desire to avoid conflict and reduced the heat of their rhetoric.
And Mr Blinken wanted to build on that.
Even before the balloon went up, the shift was one of tone, more than substance.     The Americans have continued to press ahead with the economic restrictions and military expansion in the region, angering Beijing.
In the past week, Japan and the Netherlands were reported to have reached an agreement with Washington to restrict exports of advanced chip manufacturing equipment to China.
This would be only the latest step by the US to limit Beijing's access to sensitive semiconductor technology, cutting it out of microchip supply chains.
"This shows the US has taken a much harder line on tech transfer, trying to get key allies on board," says Chris Miller, a professor of international history who wrote a book about US-China tensions over chip technology.
And in the past few days, the US military announced it was expanding its presence in the Philippines - one of several moves to strengthen regional alliances as it positions itself to counter China amid growing concern over a possible conflict with Taiwan. But the Biden administration still wanted to talk.
Mr Blanchett said the White House thought this was a good time to do so, because it had won some breathing room with a Congress hawkish on China by establishing a track record of being tough on Beijing, moving beyond steps taken by former President Donald Trump.
Instead, the balloon gave Republicans an opening to lead the charge in demanding action against China's "brazen disregard for US sovereignty".
State department officials emphasised they had not given up, that the diplomatic contacts continued to set up another meeting.
But they gave no date, adding to the sense of a consequential relationship in limbo.

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