The most immediate imperative for Presidents Xi and Biden is to identify these hardline actors as soon as possible and politically neutralize them before they deal irreparable damage to those two’s hoped-for New Détente.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken just postponed his planned trip to Beijing in response to the scandal erupting over an allegedly wayward Chinese weather balloon that recently crossed into the continental US. The People’s Republic insists that it’s a civilian research airship that accidentally flew off course while the Pentagon equally insists that it’s likely a clandestine reconnaissance vehicle. Whatever it truly is, the incident was scandalous enough to spoil his planned trip and thus imperil their New Détente.
The US’ top diplomat was supposed to make further progress on comparatively “normalizing” their relations in alignment with their leaders’ shared vision that was agreed upon during their meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Bali in mid-November. It’s too early to predict that the series of mutual compromises that they were seriously discussing to that end will be derailed, but there’s no doubt that it’s now much more difficult for each of them to convince their respective publics about this.
It can’t be known for sure, but the case can compellingly be made that Chinese and American hardliners are both responsible for this outcome. Without speculating about what exactly this aerial object is, it’s certainly cause for suspicion that China didn’t notify the US ahead of time about it allegedly flying off course, which it would have been expected to do had that actually been what really happened. The ultra-sensitive context of Blinken’s upcoming trip to Beijing should have guaranteed this, in fact.
Instead, there’s no indication from either side that China made any attempt to inform the US about this in advance. From that observation, it can be extrapolated that whichever actor in China launched this balloon didn’t behave as they’d otherwise be expected to considering the aforementioned ultra-sensitive context, thus suggesting that they might likely have been hardliners who actually wanted to complicate this event or possibly even outright derail it because they’re against the New Détente.
That said, this mysterious Chinese actor isn’t solely responsible for Blinken postponing his trip since he obviously did so under pressure from analogous hardliners on his own side who were also presumably against the New Détente too. They politicized the scandal surrounding this balloon to such an extent that the Biden Administration couldn’t realistically go through with his planned visit. Nevertheless, the silver lining is that they didn’t shoot it down otherwise the New Détente would likely be derailed.
At present, it can therefore be concluded that both Chinese and American hardliners were indeed responsible for Blinken postponing his trip to Beijing, but that neither did enough to outright sabotage the New Détente. The weather balloon could have for instance been something much more provocative if the mysterious Chinese actor with this intent truly aimed for that end, just like their analogous hardliners in the US could have shot it down instead of letting it fly through the sky.
The second-mentioned might still end up taking that course of action, however, which would suggest that this equally mysterious actor (though likely concentrated in the military wing of its permanent bureaucracy) is already (or suddenly became) powerful enough to try to derail the New Détente. That would in turn almost certainly spike the odds of a conventional Chinese-US conflict sometime this decade exactly of the sort that four-star Air Force General Mike Minihan predicted late last month.
The most immediate imperative for Presidents Xi and Biden is therefore to identify these hardline actors as soon as possible and politically neutralize them before they deal irreparable damage to those two’s hoped-for New Détente. Too much remains unclear so it’s impossible to make any forecasts beyond this vague one that’s admittedly based on a degree of educated conjecture, but in any case, these two developments were completely unexpected and show that something foul is indeed afoot.