After a brief period, US-China relations are complicated again

The United States and China thought they had a window to improve relations that now seems to have closed.

Weeks after the United States discovered a suspected Chinese spy balloon, tensions that had subsided have flared again, with little sign either side is ready to try again to make peace.

Chinese President Xi Jinping – who a month before the incident was preparing to receive Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Beijing on an official visit that was canceled – warned this week that the United States is pursuing the "containment, enclosure and suppression of China".

President Joe Biden’s administration has angered Beijing by limiting trade in advanced computer chips with China, citing the risks of their military use, and the tone in Washington is expected to harden as the 2024 presidential election approaches.

The United States has also warned of new sanctions as it publicly presses China over intelligence reports that Beijing is considering militarily aiding Russia in the Ukraine war.

Avril Haines, the US director of national intelligence, told a Senate hearing on Wednesday that Xi’s speech was "the most public and direct criticism we have seen of him to date".

"It likely reflects growing pessimism in Beijing about the relationship with the United States, as well as Xi’s growing concerns about the trajectory of China’s domestic economic development and indigenous technology, innovation challenges for which he now blames the United States."said.

Haines said that Chinese politicians are increasingly convinced that they can only promote Xi’s vision of a powerful China. "at the expense of US power and influence".

He also indicated that Xi was determined to assert his influence over Taiwan, the self-governing democracy whose elections next year raise concerns about a possible strong Chinese reaction.

However, Haines assessed that China "still believes that it benefits more from avoiding a spiral of tensions and by preserving stability in its relationship with the United States".

"Eye for an eye cycle"

Some US officials privately assert that the political and media hoopla over the balloon, much lower-tech than routine US spying on China, was overblown, though Blinken had no choice but to cancel his trip, as it would have been been overshadowed by the matter.

But US officials were frustrated that Chinese officials continually denied that the balloon was for espionage purposes. Blinken had a tense meeting on February 18 with Chinese foreign policy chief Wang Yi on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, where the American raised the issue of the globe and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Biden had a much warmer conversation with Xi last November in Bali, Indonesia, where the two said they agreed to prevent disagreements from escalating into conflict.

The meeting on the sidelines of a G20 summit came three months after China staged major military drills, angered by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s defiant visit to Taiwan.

"I think there was a time when it seemed like the deterioration was slowing down or maybe even stopping, that we could potentially put a floor on the relationship."said Jacob Stokes, a senior fellow at the Center for the New American Security.

"That seems less and less possible, at least in the short term, without very creative diplomacy and if there is no change of views, mainly from Beijing, but also from some in Washington."he opined.

friction on the horizon

There are some attempts to reduce the risks. Pelosi’s Republican successor, Kevin McCarthy, plans to meet Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in California, circumventing her possible trip to Taipei, reportedly at the behest of Taiwanese officials who feared major Chinese reprisals.

Biden, a believer in personal diplomacy, has said he plans to have another talk with Xi.

But there are many issues on the horizon, including a possible ban on the hit Chinese-owned video-sharing app TikTok and the activities of a new House committee on China.

For example, on Monday Biden will meet with the prime ministers of Australia and Great Britain to consolidate a nuclear submarine pact that will surely be seen by China as a threat.

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