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Blinken-Wang Yi meeting marked by sharp words and confrontation

Both sides took the opportunity to talk after the balloon shoot down to express anger and indignation and it was not helpful.


On Saturday, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Director of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs Wang Yi held their much anticipated sideline meeting during the Munich Security Conference. 

Rather than serving as an opportunity to clear the air and reach some understanding over the recent balloon incident so as to enable both sides to move on, the meeting apparently witnessed sharp words and confrontation. Blinken demanded that the Chinese not repeat the balloon fly-over while strongly cautioning China against providing military aid to Russia. Meanwhile, Wang expressed anger and indignation on behalf of the Chinese government over the U.S. shoot-down of the balloon, and called for Washington to acknowledge the damage it had done to the relationship. 

Clearly, despite recent expressions of restraint by President Biden, both sides have doubled down on their rigid positions, undoubtedly made worse by the need to be seen domestically as standing firm in the face of what are regarded as intolerable insults and challenges. Beijing is not about to suffer embarrassment by reversing its incredulous claim that the balloon was a mere weather device blown off course and that the U.S. had shown “hysterical” behavior in shooting it down. And Washington won’t be seen by Congress and others as anything but resolute in responding to a supposedly brazen Chinese challenge to American  sovereignty.

In all of this posturing, the fact that China had initially expressed regrets over the incident; that intelligence sources seem to think that the balloon was accidentally blown across the continental U.S.; and that both countries routinely conduct aggressive spy operations against the other, all is seemingly ignored or dismissed. It is apparently more important to look tough in the face of perceived slights than to actually engage in diplomacy to find a way back to a more stable and productive relationship. 

From an optimistic viewpoint, it’s possible to think that the two sides have now fully vented their spleens and can get back to more important issues, such as averting the slide toward a conflict over Taiwan, preventing an intensification of the Ukraine war, combating climate change, preparing for future pandemics, or shoring up the global financial order. But such an outcome seems unlikely. The handling of the balloon incident shows that the two sides lack the trust and willpower needed to engage meaningfully on even relatively small incidents, let alone major issues of vital national interest. 

Washington and Beijing are both caught in a web of domestic politics, the securitization of virtually all aspects of their relationship, and a resulting deepening level of worst case-driven suspicion over the motives and intentions of the other. Neither side is willing to acknowledge that these factors cause them both to contribute to the downward slide in relations, i.e., that the real threat is not solely from the actions of the other, but from the highly destructive nature of their interaction. 

It is hard to see what will knock the two countries out of this dangerous, worsening posture. It might take a truly serious crisis that forces them both to the edge of the abyss. But such a crisis could have exactly the opposite effect, pushing the two countries over the edge. More prudent, far-sighted leaders would grasp this danger, and start not only building serious guardrails against it (including genuine crisis management mechanisms) as a top priority, but also work hard to improve the overall relationship and find middle grounds on those issues that most divide them. 

Both sides claim to want this. But then the balloon incident comes along and both seem willing to throw such objectives out the window. 

This tells me that we don’t seem to have the leaders we need at this crucial moment. Neither leadership is willing to take on the domestic bomb throwers that exist within their political and national security communities by convincingly making the argument for a more stable and productive relationship. In this, neither country displays much strategic sense, unless one assumes that confrontations and warnings alone constitute an effective strategy for managing a hugely interdependent relationship. Each continues to mouth platitudes about win-win outcomes and a desire to avoid a cold or hot war, while taking actions that suggest the opposite. 

This relationship is far too consequential to allow what was a relatively minor security incident to derail attempts to produce a more positive form of bilateral engagement. The Wang Yi-Blinken meeting offered an opportunity to begin this process. Unfortunately, it was an opportunity squandered. What happens next is far from clear.  

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during a meeting in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia July 9, 2022. The two met on the sidelines of the Munich securiiy conference on 2/18/23. Stefani Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS
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