Friday, 23 Feb 2024

Blinken Meets With Chinese Official Amid Spy Balloon Furor, U.S. Says

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met with China’s top foreign policy official on Saturday night in Munich, a State Department official said, a resumption of diplomacy between Washington and Beijing after a breakdown that followed the Biden administration’s downing of a Chinese spy balloon over U.S. territory.

The impromptu meeting happened while the two nations were still very much at odds. Hours earlier, the Chinese official, Wang Yi, had doubled down on China’s claim that the balloon was a “civilian” research craft blown off course by high winds, calling the American decision to shoot it down “hysterical.”

The balloon episode has heightened U.S.-China tensions at a time when the relationship was already at one of its lowest points in decades. American officials say the balloon carried visible equipment that “was clearly for intelligence surveillance” as part of a global surveillance fleet directed by China’s military.

The meeting came two weeks after Mr. Blinken abruptly canceled a long-planned trip to Beijing when the United States detected the balloon floating across the country. The U.S. military eventually shot it down over the Atlantic Ocean. American officials said they were confident they had prevented it from collecting any sensitive data from U.S. nuclear sites and military bases.

The meeting between the two officials occurred at an annual security conference attended by dozens of world leaders and top diplomats. Communications between the powers had been on hold since Feb. 3, when Mr. Blinken canceled his trip to China hours before his planned departure.

The trip had been intended as a step toward soothing relations between the United States and China that have been inflamed in recent years, with some analysts worried about the growing potential for future military conflict. Mr. Blinken has said he will reschedule his visit to China “when conditions allow.”

The canceled trip and a subsequent war of words instead pointed to a new peak in Biden-era tensions. After President Biden ordered the craft shot down over coastal waters off South Carolina, China rejected a request from Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III to speak with his Chinese counterpart — a development that U.S. officials called troubling.

China initially had a contrite tone about the balloon, saying that it was a weather craft that had drifted off course. But in the following days — especially after the U.S. military identified and shot down three other unknown objects that it now concedes were probably innocuous craft — Beijing’s tone hardened.

The United States may have irked Chinese officials by publicizing Beijing’s balloon surveillance over what Biden administration officials described as including dozens of other nations around the world.

The Chinese Spy Balloon Showdown

The discovery of a Chinese surveillance balloon floating over the United States has added to the rising tensions between the two superpowers.

Mr. Wang was defiant on the subject in his formal remarks at the Munich Security Conference earlier Saturday. He called the United States’ reaction an effort “to divert attention from its domestic problems.”

Mr. Wang said shooting down the balloon “does not show that the U.S. is strong.” He added, “On the contrary, it shows the opposite.”

“We asked the United States to handle it calmly and professionally based on consultation with the Chinese side,” Mr. Wang said. “Regrettably, the United States disregarded these facts and used advanced fighter jets and downed a balloon with its missiles.

“This is, I would say, absurd and hysterical. This is 100 percent an abuse of the use of force,” he said, adding that the United States had violated an international convention governing airspace.

Speaking in more general terms in his opening remarks, Mr. Wang warned that “a Cold War mentality is back” and, in a veiled shot at the United States, that “unilateralism is rampant.”

In the days after shooting down the Chinese balloon, American fighter jets downed three more objects over North America, which U.S. officials now say they believe were harmless and probably not from China.

“Across the globe, there are many balloons in the sky from different countries,” Mr. Wang said. “Do you want to down each and every one of them?”

Although Chinese spying has long been well known to U.S. officials, the Biden administration called the balloon’s visible, physical presence an egregious provocation.

In remarks at the conference on Saturday about Russia’s war in Ukraine, Vice President Kamala Harris warned China, saying that the United States would react sharply should Beijing supply Moscow with military aid, a step it has so far not taken, according to U.S. officials.

Mr. Wang has been using the conference in Munich as a platform to tell European leaders and diplomats that China is ready to bolster ties with them and to try to play a role in ending the war in Ukraine. His charm offensive toward them comes after China’s leader, Xi Jinping, ended his “zero Covid” policy this winter, paving the way for the country to step back into the spotlight on the world stage.

The Chinese government is grappling with a slowing economy and is seeking to bolster trade ties with Europe. It is also trying to defuse tensions with the United States and European nations, animosity fueled in part by China’s diplomatic support of Russia.

After Mr. Wang met with Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany on the sidelines of the Munich conference on Saturday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said on Twitter that China was “ready to fully resume exchanges with Germany and other European countries in various fields.”

Antonio Tajani, Italy’s foreign minister, told RAI Radio 1 on Friday that Mr. Wang had told him Mr. Xi planned to deliver a “peace speech” in the coming days to address issues around the war.

Edward Wong contributed reporting from Washington.

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