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How the appearance of a balloon punctured U.S.-China relations

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

We'll turn now to Dave Shullman. He's senior director of the Global China Hub at the Atlantic Council. Good morning.

DAVE SHULLMAN: Good morning, Ayesha. Thanks for having me on.

RASCOE: So can you put this point in the U.S.-China relationship in context for us? Because just in the recent past, there's been - and I got a little list here - President Obama's so-called pivot to Asia and then the failed Trans-Pacific Partnership to counter a rising China, President Trump's economic sanctions. But then also, he had a lot of praise for Chinese President Xi. Then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan, followed by Biden and - by Biden and Xi meeting just a couple of months later. So where do you think things stood before this balloon situation?

SHULLMAN: Well, that's a very good list. I mean, I think that the point is that this incident happens in the midst of what is a very fraught time in U.S.-China relations, in particular over the last year, as we've had tensions grow over China's indirect support for Russia's war in Ukraine, over expanded U.S. export controls on critical technologies to China and, of course, in particular, as you mentioned, over Taiwan and Speaker Pelosi's - then-Speaker Pelosi's trip to Taiwan in August and China's unprecedented reaction to it. There was some hope that there could be a really substantial effort to build upon the summit between President Biden and Xi Jinping in November on the sidelines of the G-20 which you mentioned, which was their first in-person meeting. And as was just mentioned in the interview, was meant to set this floor under the relationship so there could continue to be a certain level of tension, a certain level of abrasiveness in the relationship without it going off the rails and heading in the direction of potential conflict. This visit from Secretary Blinken was meant to build upon that summit and was meant to continue to build those guardrails on the relationship. With the visit being rescheduled or delayed, there's a question now as to whether or not you can continue to build that stability in with a lot of storm clouds on the horizon in the relationship over Taiwan and other issues.

RASCOE: Does the balloon strike you as a deliberate provocation? Like, what explanation makes the most sense to you?

SHULLMAN: I do not think it makes sense that the - from what I know of the Chinese government, how they think of U.S.-China relations, that they would have deliberately timed this balloon to be going over the United States and potentially to scuttle this important diplomatic visit from Secretary Blinken. China has an interest in inserting some more stability into the relationship, particularly as they're dealing with significant domestic problems around the rapid pulling back from their "zero-COVID" policies, significant economic challenges. And I think they genuinely wanted this visit to go well. As we've heard, China has been sending these kinds of balloons over the United States and other places before. I think there was not an expectation that it would be discovered, certainly. And I think this was something that was routinized with the PLA, the Chinese military, you know, sending - expecting to send this over as part of something that was pre-scheduled. And, of course, now I think there's probably some discussions internally about the wisdom of continuing to send that balloon across right ahead of Secretary Blinken's proposed visit or expected visit.

RASCOE: I - you know, you talked about the visit. Obviously, Secretary of State Blinken's visit has been called off. What were you hoping to see out of that visit? And how long do you think it will take for the U.S. and China to get diplomacy back on track? Or is it hopeless right now?

SHULLMAN: That's exactly the right question. I mean, I think no one was expecting significant deliverables or outcomes from this visit. We knew that the United States was going to raise human rights, China's relationship with Russia. Taiwan certainly was going to come up, as well as technology. But no one expected there to be some sort of significant resolution of those major issues out of this visit. But as I mentioned, there was hope that this would continue to build in that floor into the relationship and continue to build on some of those communication mechanisms that had been cut off after Speaker Pelosi's visit to Taiwan.

With that not - with the two sides not having the opportunity to restore some of those communication channels and continue to build that level of stability in the relationship, the question now is, how do you restore that? Maybe Secretary Blinken can fit in a quick visit in the next several weeks. The problem is the calendar. China has its annual legislative session, the National People's Congress, coming up in March. And then, as was mentioned in the interview, you have the potential for Speaker McCarthy to go to Taiwan in April, which will set the relationship in a much more fraught direction. So the calendar makes this very difficult. But I think there is an interest in both sides in restoring those diplomatic engagements and trying to ensure that they gird the relationship against the challenges that are coming.

RASCOE: That's Dave Shullman, senior director of the Global China Hub at the Atlantic Council. Thank you so much for being with us.

SHULLMAN: Thank you, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.