Sometimes gifts just appear in the sky.

An alleged Chinese spy balloon seen floating about 11 miles above Montana this week could just be one for the Biden administration. Or it could make fraught bilateral relations between Washington and Beijing even worse.

The discovery of what the Pentagon labeled a "high altitude surveillance balloon" came at a crucial time in U.S.-China relations, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken was preparing to make the first trip to China by a secretary of state in more than four years.

The administration on Friday postponed the visit, which was designed to build on a November agreement between President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping to deepen engagement and keep strained ties from worsening.

The balloon potentially increases the imperative for Beijing to do so.

"I don't think the incident itself will improve bilateral relations, but if the Chinese prioritize engagement and improvement of ties, it would provide more incentive for them to deliver," said Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center think tank.

China-U.S. relations are at their worst point in decades, strained over numerous issues including microchips, human rights, tariffs and Taiwan. In recent weeks, though, observers say Beijing has softened its diplomatic rhetoric and sent what some interpret as signals of openness to thawing ties with the United States and other Western countries.

Just a "civilian airship" off course

On Friday, China's Foreign Ministry confirmed that the balloon was theirs, but called it a "civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological purposes," that had gone off course. And the ministry expressed rare "regret" for the incident.

"The way they framed the response is a big step-down from their previous harsh rhetoric on the U.S.," says Sun. "If they want the [Blinken] trip to be rescheduled and for things to be back on track, they will have to deliver something to incentivize."

What that incentive could be remains to be seen. Susan Shirk, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, and author of the book Overreach: How China Derailed its Peaceful Rise, says the coming days will be key.

"I think what we're going to look to see in the next week or two is whether or not the United States has been able to reschedule that trip and how the Chinese react to the cancellation," Shirk says. "I think they'll take a pretty low-key approach and they will try to get the trip back on the calendar as quickly as they can."

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Friday national security officials have "communicated directly with the Chinese government about this at several levels."

For his part, Blinken spoke with China's top foreign policy official, Wang Yi, and said he "would be prepared to visit Beijing as soon as conditions allow," according to a State Department statement.

If the visit can be put back on the calendar, Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at Stanford University's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, says it could work in Blinken's favor.

"It could set the stage for a better meeting than they might have had. It's not like they [the Chinese] have the moral high ground now," she says.

Seeking a modus vivendi, but the clock is ticking

In about a month, China will hold its annual session of parliament, taking Chinese officials out of the mix until mid-March.

And there are growing rumors that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy will pay a visit to Taiwan in the spring. A trip to the self-governed island last August by McCarthy's predecessor, Nancy Pelosi, triggered days of Chinese military drills around Taiwan, and prompted the Chinese government to suspend dialogue with the United States in several areas, including climate and military.

Tension is already mounting. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said on Thursday, China is opposed to any official interactions between the U.S. and Taiwan, over which Beijing claims sovereignty. McCarthy responded later, saying: "I don't think China can tell me where to go at any time, at any place."

If Blinken can't get to Beijing before McCarthy visits Taiwan, Stimson's Sun says the trip may not happen at all as relations will likely sink back into a deep freeze.

"The Chinese might feel that, well, that there's no need for a visit anymore," she says.

Even if Blinken can reschedule his trip, the hill to climb to restore a semblance of stability in China-U.S. relations is steep, according to Joshua Eisenman, an expert on Chinese foreign relations at the University of Notre Dame. In the coming months, campaigns will heat up for presidential elections in Taiwan and the United States in 2024 — and in both, China is certain to be a key issue.

"I know it might sound quite pessimistic to say, and Americans like to hear optimism, but I don't believe there is a situation that we can get to, at least in the near term, where we have something called mutual strategic trust with China," Eisenman says.

Beijing wants more stable external relations as it tries to revive the economy and adjust to life after three years of strict COVID-19 control policies. But it can only go so far, Eisenman says.

"The best thing we could seek to achieve is a modus vivendi in a post-'COVID zero' world for dealing with difficult issues."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

300x250 Ad

Support quality journalism, like the story above, with your gift right now.