May 15, 2023 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 480

Reflecting Deeply – U.S.-China Relations Following The Surveillance Balloon Incident

May 15, 2023 | By Heino Klinck*
China | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 480

The Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councilor, Qin Gang, met with U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Burns on May 8, 2023. This is the first audience that the Chinese government has graciously afforded a senior U.S. official since the surveillance balloon drama of February. It seems as though American attempts at dialogue have been rebuffed at every turn. Reportedly, the White House has wanted to schedule a call between President Biden and General Secretary Xi. The Department of State's overtures to reschedule Secretary Antony Blinken's postponed trip to Beijing have not resulted in any success. Pentagon efforts to set up a call between Secretary Lloyd Austin and the new Chinese Minister of National Defense (and a sanctioned member of the U.S. Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List) General Li Shangfu have also been fruitless. It appears as if all of these American advances have received a resounding and universal bu fangbian (不方便, "not convenient") from Chinese counterparts although National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan's meeting with Wang Yi in Vienna, on May 10-11, portends that the ardent suitor may be rewarded soon. This will probably manifest itself in a meeting between Secretary Austin and Minister Li on the sidelines of the upcoming Shangri-La Dialogue.

With this backdrop of Chinese repeated diplomatic snubs, Minister Qin was quoted as saying after the meeting with Ambassador Burns that "[We] hope the U.S. will reflect deeply, meet China halfway, and push China-U.S. relations out of the predicament and back on track." Suggesting that the U.S. "reflect deeply" is a bit ironic even for an original Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wolf warrior. It is particularly ironic, if not galling, coming on the heels of the egregious Chinese violation of U.S. airspace and territorial integrity in February when a surveillance balloon was directed over almost the entire length of the continental United States. Moreover, MEMRI's recent translations of original Chinese military source materials on the offensive, kinetic use of such balloons underscore the threat and recklessness of Beijing's actions.[1]

Yet, the balloon crisis seems so long ago and frankly, already eclipsed by other examples of Chinese aggression, revanchism, and malign activities all over the world. In the intervening three months, there have been numerous examples of Beijing's overreach including:

  • Chinese diplomatic, political, and economic support of Russia in its war of aggression continues amid claims of possible military support.

  • Chinese military intimidation of Taiwan grows with the circumnavigation of the island by Chinese drone aircraft.

  • A China Coast Guard ship almost rams a much smaller Philippine ship patrolling within its own exclusive economic zone in the vicinity of the Second Thomas Shoal.

  • Chinese police raiding the offices of three different U.S. consulting companies under the guise of national security.

  • China unilaterally cancels the visit of the German finance minister, a member of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), in light of increased FDP ties to Taiwan.

  • Chinese intimidation of a Canadian politician and the resultant tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions of Chinese and Canadian diplomats.

  • Reports of China operating extra-territorial police stations in multiple countries.

The aforementioned Chinese actions and many others preceding them have seemed to have caused countries across the globe to reflect deeply as well. One of Xi Jinping's crowning achievements has been to unite like-minded countries to band together in formal and informal groupings to push back against Beijing. The Biden and Trump Administrations are to be commended for their actions to harness America's leadership to galvanize much of the world to stem Chinese expansion in all domains. However, most of the credit should actually go to General Secretary Xi himself. More than any leader, he has united many of the liberal democracies of the world.

A snapshot of just the last several weeks demonstrates unprecedented action clearly designed, even if not always articulated explicitly, to counter Beijing:

  • European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivered a 45-minute speech in which she emphasized that there is "clearly a need for Europe to work on de-risking some important and sensitive parts of the relationship" with China.

  • NATO announces the opening of a liaison office in Japan.

  • Italy announces that it is withdrawing from the Belt and Road Initiative.

  • The first ever India-ASEAN maritime exercise is conducted in the South China Sea.

  • The U.S. and Japan announce that Article V of their mutual defense treaty extends to cover space assets as well.

  • The U.S., Japan, and South Korea discuss real-time sharing of radar data.

  • The Philippines just granted the U.S. access to four additional military bases, for a total of nine, under the auspices of the Extended Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

  • The pronouncements made in the Australian Defense Strategic Review were clearly made with the China threat in mind.

The increasing coalescence of like-minded states globally vis-à-vis China must be disconcerting for the CCP. Talks of decoupling, de-risking, more delegations to Taiwan (and not just American Congressional visits), and new and unique groupings of countries seemingly banding together in opposition to past, present, and potential Chinese coercion is growing and actually turning into concrete actions even in some surprising corners of the world. As General Secretary Xi anticipates what new bad news may emerge from the upcoming G-7 Summit in Hiroshima, it may be time for him and the CCP to reflect deeply as others have already done so.

*Heino Klinck is a Member of MEMRI's Board of Advisors. He served as the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia, 2019-2021. As an Army Foreign Area Officer, he served as a military attaché in China, 2004-2010.

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