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The Chinese spy balloon crisis may be over, but what is the lasting damage to US-China relations?

The U.S. and China were about to come together for a rare meeting. Then the balloon appeared.

But for all the spy-novel drama, there was another question that got a lot less attention: What damage had the balloon done to already-fragile U.S.-China relations?

Grid went back to the same experts we’d planned to interview about the Blinken visit — only now with that different question: How much damage has the balloon done?

The immediate fallout

This isn’t the first time the U.S. and China have had to work through a high-stakes controversy — and not even the first time aerial surveillance has been involved.

In 2001, a U.S. surveillance plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet near the Chinese of island of Hainan — an incident that led to high-stakes diplomacy after the U.S. crew made an emergency landing on Hainan and was detained. More recently, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi flew to Taiwan last summer, enraging China and once again testing diplomacy.

Eleanor Albert, a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues, noted that this was “a really unusual admission,” for the Chinese government, which typically reacts with defensiveness and accusations against the U.S. in such situations.

But much more could have been done by Chinese officials in those initial hours to cool tensions, according to Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center.

“I think they should have disclosed information about the balloon,” in particular its course and technical specifications, she said. “Their refusing to give any information only feeds into this suspicion that, well, this has to be military, right? So I think transparency would be China’s best strategy, and unfortunately, they’re not taking it.”

By the weekend, tensions on both sides had escalated sharply. Blinken canceled his trip in a public announcement — and then the U.S. shot down the balloon.

Ultimately, the sheer visibility of this crisis made it a difficult one to manage. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) noted that past Chinese balloon incursions hadn’t made the news. “But once you see a big white object in the sky on CNN, and suddenly it’s a top conversation everywhere,” he told George Washington University’s Defense Writers Group on Tuesday. “I think that when it makes ‘Saturday Night Live,’ you’ve got an issue that has a real resonance to the American people.”

Longer term, a lost opportunity

Beyond the frenetic few days of the immediate balloon crisis, there are questions about longer-term implications.

As Xie said in his statement, both sides had been building goodwill over the past several months before the crisis. Blinken, too, noted the positive momentum on Friday, even as he canceled his trip. “We’ve been working across the U.S. government to prepare for a substantive set of discussions on issues that matter to the American people and to people around the world,” Blinken said. “And we’ve been engaging for some time with our counterparts in Beijing to prepare for these meetings.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. had expressed a desire to, at the very least, put a floor under the relationship and establish guardrails — diplomacy-speak for managing differences and communicating about them, without necessarily resolving all the tensions. “Establishing guardrails” might not sound like much, but given the current fragile state of the U.S.-China relationship, it could be the difference between coexistence and catastrophe.

As Jude Blanchette, Freeman chair in China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), put it before the balloon crisis flared, “I think the goal is to basically fast-forward this Cold War to its detente phase, thereby skipping a Cuban missile crisis.”

Albert told Grid that “with certainly elevated tensions, the very commitment to just reviving high-level diplomatic engagement after covid, amid all of these kind of antagonizing elements, I think was a step in the right direction.”

Perhaps most important, such high-level meetings would afford both sides a chance to better understand the objectives of the other. Without such understanding, Albert said, “I think there’s a lot more necessity to rely on interpretation … interpretation can lead to a lot of miscalculation, it’s really hard to understand intention.” She added, “If you’re basing policy on that, you know, obviously that’s a dangerous road to go down.”

Also lost in the canceled Blinken visit: the chance for the two nations to find further common cause on global challenges. Both countries had suggested in recent months that their collaboration might help in the areas of climate change and pandemic prevention.

“I think public health is one area where it’s possible you could see the two sides talk about ways that they could expand collaboration and information-sharing,” Scott Kennedy, trustee chair in Chinese business and economics at CSIS, told reporters before the balloon crisis. The early days of covid-19 — when much of the world was in the dark about the spread of illness in the Chinese city of Wuhan — underscored the importance of improving communication between the U.S. and China on these issues. And experts have long argued that climate action could be furthered by cooperation between the two superpowers.

Will there be another chance?

On Friday, Blinken suggested that there may still be hope for a trip. “I told Director Wang [Yi, China’s highest-ranking diplomat] that the United States remains committed to diplomatic engagement with China and that I plan to visit Beijing when conditions allow,” he said.

“In the meantime, the United States will continue to maintain open lines of communication with China, including to address this ongoing incident.”

But experts told Grid that the Biden administration is likely to face headwinds in rescheduling the trip, given the bipartisan anti-China mood in Washington, along with the vociferous Republican criticism of the administration’s handling of the balloon incident. “I think the political optics make it increasingly unlikely to happen,” Sun said.

She also pointed to difficult domestic calendars ahead, with China set to hold its National People’s Congress in March and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) potentially traveling to Taiwan — another incident that is bound to elicit a strong response from Beijing.

Perhaps Blinken will go to Beijing, and perhaps the balloon will ultimately be remembered as a blip in the U.S.-China relationship. But for the moment, that big orb over Montana — and what happened to it — have been reminders of the fragility of the relationship and the challenges ahead for diplomacy.

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