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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Blinken has tense meeting with Chinese official amid spy balloon furor

A high-altitude surveillance balloon was recovered this month off the coast of South Carolina.

By Michael Crowley and David E. Sanger

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held what U.S. officials described as a confrontational meeting with his Chinese counterpart Saturday night in Munich, warning him that the flight of a Chinese surveillance balloon across the United States “must never happen again.”

He also cautioned Beijing against providing “material support” to Russia’s war in Ukraine, a prospect he later suggested China was now “strongly” considering.

The U.S. description of the meeting, which resumed diplomatic contact between Washington and Beijing after it broke down over the balloon episode, said nothing about how the Chinese official, Wang Yi, responded. But a brief summary on official Chinese state media described an equally sharp exchange.

Wang, according to that account, said it was up to the United States to “solve the damage caused by the indiscriminate use of force” when it shot down the large balloon off South Carolina.

The two descriptions suggested that both Washington and Beijing were digging in, two weeks after the episode. U.S. officials had clearly hoped to find a path toward a resolution that would allow Blinken to reschedule a visit to China, the first in years by a U.S. secretary of state, that he had abruptly canceled as the balloon drifted from Montana to the East Coast.

Notably, neither country said anything about seeking a new date for Blinken’s trip. Blinken also told NBC that he had spoken “very clearly and very directly” to Wang about the balloon incident and that there had been “no apology” from Wang during the meeting. It was another reminder that Chinese-U.S. relations have fallen to perhaps their lowest point since Richard Nixon opened a channel of communication to China’s leadership a half-century ago.

Although U.S. President Joe Biden often talks of aspiring to a relationship in which the two nations are in vigorous competition but not conflict, many at the Munich Security Conference — an annual meeting of diplomatic, intelligence officials and lawmakers — expressed concerns that the handling of the balloon episode merely highlighted how the two countries had failed to de-escalate, even when no lives were lost.

Hours before Blinken and Wang met, Wang appeared before the conference and, to the astonishment of many Western officials, doubled down on China’s claim that the balloon had been a “civilian” research craft blown off course by high winds, calling the U.S. decision to shoot it down “absurd and hysterical.” He also accused the United States of an “abuse of the use of force.”

A U.S. State Department description of Blinken’s message to Wang, using the abbreviation for the People’s Republic of China, said the United States “will not stand for any violation of our sovereignty, and that the PRC’s high-altitude surveillance program — which has intruded into the air space of over 40 countries across 5 continents, has been exposed to the world.”

The U.S. Navy and the Coast Guard have since recovered much of the balloon’s equipment — contained in a payload about the size of a small regional airliner — and U.S. officials have said they intend to make public details about the sensors they found. Officials have already said the craft’s surveillance equipment was visible, contradicting China’s claims that it was a weather balloon.

Blinken also renewed warnings that China should not assist Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, amid growing concerns that Beijing is inching closer to doing just that, including by providing satellite imagery to Russia’s private Wagner militia and electronics that might aid Russia in building military hardware.

In his interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” which was taped Saturday night for broadcast Sunday, Blinken said the United States would soon be offering new information to demonstrate Beijing was “strongly considering providing lethal assistance to Russia.”

Although the State Department sought to portray Blinken’s tone as tough, its official statement on the meeting said that he had stressed to Wang “the importance of maintaining diplomatic dialogue and open lines of communication at all times,” and that “we do not want conflict with the PRC and are not looking for a new Cold War.”

That phrase was particularly notable given that Wang had said, during earlier remarks Saturday at the conference, that “the Cold War mentality is back” in global affairs.

The meeting Saturday night came two weeks after Blinken abruptly canceled a long-planned trip to Beijing 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.

The canceled trip and subsequent war of words set relations back further. After Biden ordered the craft shot down, China rejected a request from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to speak with his Chinese counterpart — a development that U.S. officials called troubling.

China initially struck a contrite tone about the balloon, saying 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 objects that it now concedes were probably innocuous craft — Beijing’s tone hardened.

Wang called the United States’ reaction an effort “to divert attention from its domestic problems,” and he said that shooting down the balloon had been “100% an abuse of the use of force,” adding that the United States had violated an international convention governing airspace.

Despite the pointed rhetoric, said Danny Russel, a vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute, an independent research organization, “the fact that the meeting occurred and that both sides can claim to have delivered their points on the spy balloon may help the two sides put the incident behind them and move on to rescheduling Blinken’s trip to Beijing — which is where the real work needs to get done.”

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. In his public remarks Saturday, he said China would soon offer a peace proposal to stop the fighting. But Blinken warned in a separate event against the allure of cease-fires that Russia might exploit to regroup for new offensives.

Wang’s entreaties came 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, amid animosity fueled in part by China’s diplomatic support of Russia.

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

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1 Comment

Rose Rose
Rose Rose
Feb 20, 2023

To the Boricuas (because the Puerto Ricans are a lost cause, they refuse to accept their histories) Never believe anything the news of Puerto Rico tells you, remember they work for the colonizers and not for the people. The only time you believe something like this article is when a government stops all contracts with said Nation. Since they didn’t stop the contracts with China, it means they probably signed a contract with China. Hahahahahaha. Only time a truth is told is when the contracts of nations are canceled. The crazy part is hypocrites who sign contracts with foreign nations that are against us are the biggest traitors on the planet. If I was a governor the first th…

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