Little room for maneuver as U.S.-China ties slide further

By Michael Martina and David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden said last month after a U.S. fighter jet shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon that he planned to speak to Chinese President Xi Jinping about the episode and clear the air between the rival superpowers.

Five weeks later, the call still hasn’t happened.

Instead, after two months of diplomatic sniping and Xi’s trip this week to Moscow where he and Russian President Vladimir Putin jointly denounced the United States, U.S.-China relations have slid to what some say is the worst since the countries normalized ties in the 1970s.

Further complicating matters are stopovers in the United States next week and in early April by Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, who according to sources familiar with the planning may meet Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy during a “transit” stop in California on her way back from Latin America.

“This is not a good moment for American diplomacy,” said William Kirby, a professor of Chinese studies at Harvard University. “The last time China and Russia were this close was 1957, when Mao Zedong declared in Moscow, ‘The East Wind will prevail over the West Wind.'”

Now U.S. officials are once again asking how to reset the world’s most important bilateral relationship.

A Biden-Xi call would be an obvious first step. But despite the efforts of U.S. diplomats, sources said the Chinese have shown little interest in committing to such a call, which would be their first known interaction since a November meeting at the G20 in Bali.

Blinken did meet with China’s top diplomat Wang Yi at the Munich Security Conference last month after the balloon incident, but this did not soothe tensions. A source familiar with that conversation called it the most antagonistic U.S.-China engagement since contentious talks in Alaska early in the Biden administration. 

The person said China had declined to coordinate the meeting, forcing the State Department’s top East Asia diplomat, Daniel Kritenbrink, to personally track down Wang Yi at the conference center to ask whether it would happen.


The U.S. decision to shoot down the Chinese balloon on Feb. 4 drew angry complaints from China and Wang called the U.S. reaction “hysterical”.

The source said frictions were also exacerbated by Biden’s State of the Union speech three days later in which he appeared to question Xi’s standing on the world stage, enraging officials in Beijing.

“Name me a world leader who’d change places with Xi Jinping. Name me one,” Biden said in his speech, evidently referring to a host of domestic and foreign policy challenges facing China.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson did not address the Munich meeting or China’s reaction to Biden’s comments but said that the U.S. will continue to keep “open and constructive lines of communication” with China.

“In past times, when the relationship encountered a major dip, as after the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 or the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1995-96, the two countries made serious efforts to reestablish a stable foundation under their relations,” said Michael Swaine, a China expert at the Quincy Institute.

“Now a deepening level of suspicion, vitriol, and finger-pointing dominate almost all exchanges, preventing substantive engagement.”

A senior U.S. administration official said on Monday Washington was urging China to keep communication channels open despite Tsai Ing-wen’s planned stopovers, which are sensitive given that China claims self-governed Taiwan as its own.

The official said Washington was open to China’s views on whether to conduct a Xi-Biden call or reschedule a trip to China by Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed due to the balloon incident.

Rick Waters, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for China, Taiwan and Mongolia, is currently in China and a person familiar with his plans said he would likely seek to lay the groundwork for Blinken to visit.


Some, like the Republican chair of the House select committee on China Mike Gallagher, want a tougher line, saying that Russia and China are already engaged in “a New Cold War.”

He said that to ensure China does not follow Russia’s lead in Ukraine by invading Taiwan, Washington should “aggressively clear the backlog of foreign military sales to Taiwan and ensure that American hard power is capable of deterring Xi’s clear ambitions to absorb the island democracy.”

However, Biden is likely to find Xi emboldened in any call after a Chinese-brokered rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran and his meetings with Putin. That could make him less likely to offer concessions that could generate much-needed goodwill, said Lily McElwee, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Daniel Russel, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia under former President Barack Obama, said the window for a Biden-Xi call could be “slow to open and quick to close” given Biden will travel to Japan and Australia in May for meetings of G-7 and Quad countries Washington has encouraged to push back against China’s ambitions, which will likely further antagonize Beijing.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Michael MartinaEditing by Don Durfee and Alistair Bell)