The Mercury News

What is the U.S. relationsh­ip with China after spy balloon?

- By Daniel DePetris Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune. © 2023 Chicago Tribune. Distribute­d by Tribune Content Agency.

If you thought the Chinese spy balloon saga would deflate as fast as the balloon did over the Atlantic Ocean, you're sadly mistaken. Days after a U.S. F-22 destroyed the device with a single air-to-air missile at 58,000 feet, the story continues to hover over the news cycle like a blimp over Mile High Stadium. The only difference is we can't use a fighter jet to bomb the conversati­on out of existence.

Take the emotion out of it, and the discovery of the spy balloon is a relatively mundane event. By the Pentagon's own admission, this isn't the first time Beijing has pulled something like this — and it's not even the first time it has occurred over U.S. territory. Indeed, as members of Congress and pundits were running around with their hair on fire about the balloon blocking the sun, another one was spotted somewhere over Latin America. Such incursions aren't ideal, of course, but they aren't surprising either — and if U.S. defense officials can be taken at their word, they also aren't very effective in scooping up informatio­n.

The U.S., too, tries to get as much informatio­n as it can on its allies' decision-making. The U.S. tapped the phones of three French presidents between 2006 and 2012, and the National Security Agency did the same thing to then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel, which caused a significan­t diplomatic dust-up at the time.

The uproar over the balloon, it seems, is less about China trying to gather intelligen­ce than on the fact that the balloon was allowed to drift across U.S. territory for nearly a week before President Joe Biden ordered the Air Force to shoot the thing down.

What's done is done. The more important issue on the table is how the U.S. and China choose to go forward. Do they let a common instance of espionage derail attempts at establishi­ng guardrails over the world's most important bilateral relationsh­ip? Or do both countries press ahead on the diplomatic initiative outlined by Biden and Xi during a bilateral summit last November, when the two committed to preventing U.S.-China relations from going deeper into the sewer?

The early indication­s are troubling. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to visit China this past Sunday, a trip that included a sitdown with Xi — the first time in nearly six years America's top diplomat would set foot on Chinese soil. In the heat of the moment, however, Biden decided to cancel Blinken's meeting after Washington discovered the Chinese spying device drifting over Alaska and Canada into Montana.

Given the sensationa­lism surroundin­g #BalloonGat­e, the administra­tion likely felt it didn't have a choice but to do something, beyond destroying the balloon, to register its disapprova­l of China's actions. Postponing the trip was one of those simple moves that could be taken immediatel­y, and one whose diplomatic fallout would be minimal.

That's the hope, at least. It's also the bestcase scenario, for the last thing Washington and Beijing need right now is a relationsh­ip in even deeper turmoil. We aren't talking about two pipsqueak countries with next to no geopolitic­al significan­ce but rather two economic giants that make up around 42% of the world's gross domestic product and more than half its military spending and have a booming trade relationsh­ip of their own.

These are two countries whose navies frequently traverse the same congested Asian waters, including but not limited to the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. And these are two countries that, systemic foreign policy and economic disputes notwithsta­nding, really don't have a choice but to learn to live with each other.

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