It could have been so nice: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken would visit China. Then China and the United States would show the whole world that a war between the two great powers is far from inevitable. The countries would indicate that they were cold-blooded and sensible enough to build what Blinken calls “guard rails” together. Those ‘guard rails’ would ensure that the China-US relationship cannot get out of hand in the future.
But it turned out differently. Not a near-collision of an American and a Chinese warplane over the Taiwan Strait prevented the visit, but a balloon hovering over the US did.
On Thursday, the Pentagon announced that an alleged Chinese spy balloon had been spotted over US territory. In the night from Friday to Saturday, the US Department of Defense reported the signaling of a second surveillance balloon, this time hovering over South America. According to the Canadian television channel CTV News, there is even talk of possibly four balloons flying over different parts of the world.
China stated that although the balloon belonged to China, it was not espionage. “It is a civil airship used for research, mainly in the meteorological field,” said the Chinese foreign ministry. Due to westerly winds, it would have drifted and accidentally entered US airspace: a matter of force majeure.
Despite this denial, Blinken canceled his planned visit to China. He was actually supposed to be in China this Sunday and Monday for talks, probably with Chinese President Xi Jinping, about the tense situation around Taiwan and the war in Ukraine, among other things. It would be the first visit by a US secretary of state to China since 2018, nearly five years ago.
Read also:What does China want with that balloon in US airspace?
Heavy blow for China
China reacts coldly to Blinken’s cancellation and labels it as “an American matter”. The State Department also accuses the US that politicians and media have “hyped” the case to “attack and blacken China”.
However, the canceled visit is indeed a heavy blow for China. After the 20th Party Congress in October last year, all Chinese diplomacy is aimed at projecting a new openness to the world and, in particular, at persuading the West to adopt a milder and more benevolent attitude towards China.
For example, Zhao Lijian, one of the most aggressive and notorious spokesmen for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was promoted to an invisible behind-the-scenes position. Foreign leaders were again fully welcome, Xi himself went abroad again after almost three years. German Prime Minister Olaf Scholz visited, followed by a whole procession of presidents and prime ministers. China, was the message, was all over again open for business.
Although there was no evidence that China had fundamentally changed its course for the longer term, it did ensure that countries and companies once again gave China the benefit of the doubt. This was also done in the hope that a revival of the Chinese economy could save the world from recession.
China cannot do without the US
The balloon incident now breaks that Chinese strategy: the US will be hesitant to put the visit back on the agenda all too easily. The Republicans would quickly interpret that as a sign of weakness on the part of Democratic President Joe Biden.
But China cannot do without the US at the moment. The American market for Chinese products is and will remain huge, and technology from the West will also remain highly necessary. In 2022, China’s trade surplus with the US will further increase to USD 78 billion. The economic ties with the US, and also with Europe, are therefore much larger and still much more important than the economic ties with, for example, Russia and African countries, despite all the decoupling.
That there is a Chinese intention to fly a balloon over the US right now is not very conceivable for that reason alone. Although China may have counted on the existence of the balloon – if it were discovered by the US at all – would be publicized. But the American authorities had little choice but to open up when civilians were also able to observe and film the balloon.
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The fact that Blinken is not traveling to China makes the world a little more dangerous. In Taiwan, a military clash is becoming increasingly likely due to the growing military presence around the island of both the US and China. An accident or a misunderstanding is then in a small corner. China and the US also see this, which is precisely why both countries attach importance to keeping sufficient communication channels open in any case to prevent misunderstandings.
The hope that the US and China can quickly lay the foundations for this has disappeared behind the horizon for the time being.