23 May 2024

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned China not to repeat its “irresponsible act” of sending a spy balloon into American airspace, as he held rare talks late Saturday with China’s top diplomat Wang Yi.

The highly anticipated meeting of the two senior officials came on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference amid growing tensions between Washington and Beijing.

The US has been in a state of alarm since a huge white balloon from China was spotted over a series of secret nuclear weapons sites, before being shot down just off the east coast on February 4.

The incident led Blinken to abruptly call off a rare trip to China.

Beijing denies it uses spy balloons and says the craft was for weather research. Subsequently it accused Washington of sending its own espionage balloons over Chinese territory, which the US has denied.

During their encounter Saturday, Blinken “directly spoke to the unacceptable violation of US sovereignty and international law by (China’s) high-altitude surveillance balloon in US territorial airspace, underscoring that this irresponsible act must never again occur”, State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

“The Secretary made clear the United States will not stand for any violation of our sovereignty,” he added.

He also warned Wang “about the implications and consequences if China provides material support to Russia or assistance with systemic sanctions evasion”, Price said.

Blinken was “very direct and candid” during the talks, which lasted around an hour, according to a senior State Department official.

He was also “quite blunt” as they spoke about Russia, the official said.

In turn, Wang told Blinken that their countries’ relations had been damaged by how Washington reacted to the balloon.

Wang “made clear China’s solemn position on the so-called airship incident”, and “urged the US side to change course, acknowledge and repair the damage that its excessive use of force caused to China-US relations,” state news agency Xinhua reported.

Speaking earlier Saturday at the gathering of world leaders in Munich, Wang had condemned the US reaction to the balloon as “hysterical and absurd”.

– ‘Misguided’ –

In uncharacteristically strong remarks against Washington, Wang said President Joe Biden’s administration had a “misguided” perception of Beijing.

And he accused the United States of trying to “smear” the Asian giant while Washington itself was implementing policies that ran counter to its paradigms, such as free trade.

“There are many balloons from many countries in the sky. Do you want to down each and every one of them?” Wang said.

“We urge the United States not to do such preposterous things simply to divert attention from its own domestic problems.”

Asked then if he was planning to meet with the US delegation, Wang had accused Washington of taking a wrong view of China as a serious geopolitical challenge and a threat to the United States.

“This is a misguided perception of China, and with this perception, the United States is using all of its means to smear and clamp down China, and is co-opting other countries to do the same,” he said.

Wang accused the US instead of “100-percent protectionism, 100-percent self-servingness, 100-percent unilateral action” in its own economic policies, such as the Chips Act that earmarks billions of dollars for subsidies and research in the semiconductor sector.

He added that he hoped Washington would “take a pragmatic and proactive attitude” towards China and restore relations to a “track of sound development”.

– ‘Don’t make same mistake’ –

After four years of antagonistic relations with China under his predecessor Donald Trump, Biden has made a priority of resetting relations with Beijing, which he describes as Washington’s biggest competitor.

But tensions flared last year after Nancy Pelosi, then leader of the US House of Representatives, visited Taiwan, the self-governing democratic island claimed by Beijing.

Hopes for a reset could be tested again soon, with a high-level Pentagon official arriving in Taiwan for a visit, according to a Financial Times report Friday.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also led Western powers to cast a wary eye on the relations between Russian leader Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping, who call each other “friends”.

Also in Munich, US Vice President Kamala Harris underlined how Washington was “troubled that Beijing has deepened its relationship with Moscow since the war began”.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said “Beijing is watching closely to see the price Russia pays, or the reward it receives for its aggression.”

“What is happening in Europe today could happen in East Asia tomorrow,” he warned.

Stoltenberg also said Moscow’s assault had exposed the dangers of Europe’s over-reliance on authoritarian regimes. It should serve as a lesson as the continent pursued relations with Beijing, he argued.

“We should not make the same mistake with China and other authoritarian regimes.”