Nearly a year into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, only US and China hold the key to convince the aggressor to sit down and talk about ending what is turning out to be a longer war than previously anticipated. Both economic and security powers have incentive to restore geopolitical stability. But given the fresh diplomatic setback between US and China that took place over past few days, it appears that the two big powers have their own relationship to patch up before they can go on a mission fixing others.

The sequence of events sounds comical – straight out of an episode of Space Force or Veep – but the aftermath reminds one of dangers of potential misadventures and misjudged intentions. One Chinese ‘spy balloon’ flew over US skies, covering several states for an extended period of time last week. The Chinese called it an unmanned ‘airship’ on a mission to collect weather data, which got off-course due to wind. The US government viewed it as a hostile aircraft, potentially surveying sensitive installations.

While such ‘balloons’ (which can be called distant cousins of low-earth-orbit satellites) hovering at considerable heights are not new in the world of spying and geopolitics, the incident caused an uproar in the US, with the opposition Republican lawmakers calling on President Biden to act tough on China. As the spy balloon had a large surveillance ‘payload’ of several tons that could endanger folks down below, the Pentagon waited for it to enter the Atlantic Ocean – and then it was shot down with an F22 Raptor.

In an already-tense relationship, this widely-publicized incident is likely to further narrow the road to rapprochement between US and China. In recent months, both governments had been trying to manage their difficult economic and security conflicts, which require open lines of communication. But now, the postponement of the US Secretary of State’s upcoming Beijing visit and harsh reaction from China over the shooting down of what they refer to as a weather-reconnaissance balloon, has caused setbacks.

With its borders mostly protected naturally by the oceans, any violations of US airspace (which is rare) draws a serious response, sometimes an over-reaction, by the sitting US President, who cannot politically afford to look weak on national security. While experts have noted that the balloon incident was of no material security significance for either side, this episode has the potential to intensify insecurity in the US and provoke Beijing to respond to US air and sea maneuvers near its waters in an aggressive, hostile manner. The last thing the world needs is an active security conflict breaking out between US and China.

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