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US Diplomacy Push After Chinese Balloon Incident Comes Under Bipartisan Fire at House Panel

A senior State Department official took heavy fire from Republicans and Democrats in a US congressional hearing on Tuesday for Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s attempts to move beyond the Chinese balloon incident that put bilateral engagements on hold for months earlier this year.

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink also faced withering criticism from Republicans for the back-to-back trips by President Joe Biden’s top officials to Beijing, including Blinken’s in June, which Democratic congresswoman Judy Chu of California called “chasing Chinese Communist Party officials for fruitless engagements”.

“I am worried about the growing trend of the State Department not being forthcoming with information about its engagement with the PRC, or actions taken by the PRC that directly affect United States national security such as the spy balloon and the spy base in Cuba,” added Chu, chairwoman of the Asia-Pacific subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

In June, Blinken said of the balloon incident in an interview with MSNBC: “We did what we needed to do to protect our interests” and “that chapter should be closed”.

US officials have said the balloon formed part of a global surveillance programme by Beijing. The Chinese government has said the balloon was for civilian use and accidentally entered US airspace when it was blown off course. On the subject of Cuba, Chu was referring to a Biden administration assessment that China has been operating a spy base in the island nation since at least 2019.

Throughout the House subcommittee’s hearing on the Biden administration’s 2024 budget requests for its Indo-Pacific strategy, Kritenbrink maintained that “we are committed to using all tools at our disposal and we do intend to use all tools available” to respond to threats posed by China.

These, he said, included a raft of sanctions placed on Chinese entities deemed responsible for alleged human rights abuses against Uygurs and other religious minorities, plus export restrictions on advanced semiconductor chips and other sensitive technology to China.

US climate envoy John Kerry became the third senior figure in the Biden administration to visit China in recent weeks, following Blinken’s trip, which was postponed in February, a day before he was due to depart for Beijing, because of the Chinese balloon’s entry into American airspace.

Reports of Chinese spy base in Cuba met with shrugs in Latin America
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen visited the Chinese capital earlier this month, and speculation has been growing that Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo plans to visit.

Tuesday’s hearing comes amid increasing scepticism, mostly among Republicans, as to whether a revival in high-level bilateral talks serves American interests.

Republican congressman Andy Barr of Kentucky, for example, asked Kritenbrink whether any Chinese official had conditioned a rescheduled trip on assurances that the FBI would not release its findings on the balloon. He asked the official to name “one tangible win” that resulted from Blinken’s trip.

“We’ve never accepted any conditions on the secretary travelling to Beijing, and we made clear that only after the secretary visited would there be” further visits by senior Biden administration officials, Kritenbrink replied.

Balloon saga has had ‘great impact’ on US-China relations, analyst says
Democratic congressman Brad Sherman of California also grilled Kritenbrink on the matter and suggested that he expected to get a briefing on the matter by US intelligence officials.

“We deliberately didn’t shoot down the balloon over Alaska or Montana because we wanted to see everything that was on it, and we allowed the balloon to go over military bases, all in an effort to find out what was on the balloon” Sherman said.

“They haven’t told you and they haven’t told me what was on the balloon, so I look forward to working with this subcommittee and full committee to get a classified briefing on that,” he added.

Republicans further hammered Kritenbrink for not moving more quickly to fulfil congressional authorisations to provide military support to Taiwan – a self-ruled island over which Beijing claims sovereignty – and issue sanctions against Chinese entities deemed responsible for alleged human rights violations.

Source : The Star