President Xi Jinping’s efforts to revive China’s economy at the start of his historic third term in office hinge on two abrupt shifts in policy: a hasty retreat from his zero-Covid strategy and a decision to stabilize strained relations with the United States. United.
While the first effort is well underway and will give at least a brief boost to the world’s second-largest economy, the second has been stalled by the “spy balloon” crisis, which has threatened to freeze diplomatic contacts between the world’s superpowers. and deepen the divisions on advanced technology and Taiwan.
The melee prompted Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, to cancel at the last minute a planned visit to Beijing, which was intended to follow up on the constructive face-to-face meeting between Xi and President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the summit. November G20. in Indonesia.
The balloon, which Chinese officials say was a weather ‘unmanned airship’ that inadvertently strayed into Canadian and US airspace before being shot down on Saturday, sparked outrage and mockery as he drifted slowly across North America.
If the plane were a surveillance operation, it would raise serious concerns about decision-making at the top of China’s political apparatus just as Xi prepares to begin his unprecedented third presidential term. Backed by a new slate of loyalists, Xi’s elevation in China’s annual rubber stamp parliament session next month will cement his status as the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.
The Biden administration says Chinese surveillance balloons have only passed through the United States a handful of times in the past six years, suggesting last week’s alleged spy mission was either approved by Xi despite the risks, either was a relatively rare operation he was unaware of, a troubling prospect for Washington and Beijing.
“An open question is whether Xi Jinping was aware of the mission and approved of it, and what were the assumptions about its potential impact on [US] relationships,” said Drew Thompson of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.
“We don’t know whether this demonstrates that the People’s Liberation Army is not coordinating politically sensitive missions with the party leadership, or whether the PLA is putting the brakes on Xi Jinping’s efforts to lower the temperature of US-US relations. Chinese.”
Any rapprochement with the United States would bolster Xi’s efforts to turn around China’s stagnant economy, which grew just 3% in 2022, the second weakest reading since 1976, highlighting the costs of the zero policy -Covid which has crushed consumption with continuous blockages.
Policymakers in Beijing are also grappling with falling exports and a real estate crisis that has plunged developers into default and sent home prices plummeting.
At the same time, the United States has stepped up its efforts to hobble China’s semiconductor industry in a technology war between major world powers. Washington has imposed sweeping export controls to restrict China’s access to advanced chips and rallied allies to stifle the flow of components and manufacturing tools that would allow Beijing to bolster its domestic chip-making industry. fleas.
The easing of economic hostilities would ease pressure on Beijing to revive growth as the pandemic reopens, while warming ties with Washington could help defuse tensions over issues such as a possible dispute over Taiwan, over which China claims sovereignty and has threatened to claim it by force.
Paul Haenle, an Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said: “It’s pretty clear [Xi] wants to put the relationship on better footing at least in the short term so they can deal with their challenges at home.
But he added that the furor over the ball, especially if followed by a visit to Taiwan by Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, “underscores the incredibly fragile nature of US-China relations and the potential for further deterioration.” .
At the very least, the balloon incident will delay any bilateral reconciliation for weeks or months — and even then Biden’s room to maneuver will be limited by warmongering Republicans.
Steve Daines, a Republican senator from Montana, called the balloon “a tremendous embarrassment to the United States.”
“This is just one more example of how weak the Biden administration is on the world stage,” said Daines, who once worked in China’s southern province of Guangdong for Procter & Gamble, as the ball drifted past. above nuclear missile silos in his home country.
Beijing has been met with Republican outrage in kind, accusing the United States of “overreacting” and claiming that the balloon’s straying into American airspace was a “totally unexpected” accident.
On Monday, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng, whom Xi named as his next ambassador to Washington, lodged a formal protest with the US Embassy in Beijing.
Chinese analysts played down the long-term ramifications of the confrontation, which they said could explode, adding that Blinken’s visit was unlikely to yield any concrete results, even if it had taken place.
“The balloon affair is a temporary incident and can be resolved,” said He Weiwen, a senior fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing and a former Chinese diplomat. “It will not have a long-term impact on China-US relations.”
“I think [Blinken] will come to China soon,” said Wu Xinbo, an American expert at Fudan University in Shanghai. “Washington and Beijing had made serious preparations over the past few months for the trip to restore the mechanisms for dialogue between the two countries.”
Additional reporting by Xinning Liu in Beijing