US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with China’s top diplomat Wang Yi on Saturday, a State Department spokesperson said.

The meeting, which took place on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, is the first face-to-face between senior US and Chinese officials since the US shot down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina earlier this month after it traveled across American airspace.

The diplomatic fallout from the balloon has been swift, with Washington accusing China of overseeing an extensive international surveillance program. Beijing, meanwhile, has denied those claims, and in turn accused the US, without evidence, of flying balloons over its airspace without permission. China maintains that its balloon, which US forces identified and then downed earlier this month, was a civilian research aircraft accidentally blown off course.

Earlier Saturday, Wang criticized the United States’ handling of the incident, calling the response “absurd and hysterical” and “100% an abuse of the use of force.”

The incident also had an immediate impact on what had been seen as an opportunity for the US and China to stabilize relations. In early February, Blinken postponed an expected visit to Beijing, after the balloon – floating over the US in plaint sight – dominated media headlines and public attention.

The visit would have been the first to China by a US secretary of state since 2018, on the heels of a relatively amicable face-to-face between US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the Group of 20 summit in November.

Biden said Thursday that he expects to speak with Xi about the balloon but that he will not apologize for shooting it down.

“I hope we are going to get to the bottom of this, but I make no apologies for taking down that balloon,” he said.

Some analysts believed that Beijing, economically drained by its now-abandoned zero-Covid strategy, had been softening its tone on foreign affairs and upping its diplomacy with Western governments in a bid to win back lost ground.

While expectations for substantial breakthroughs were low, Blinken’s trip was supposed to build a floor for fraught US-China relations and prevent tensions from veering into open conflict – guardrails intended to keep incidents like the suspected surveillance balloon from escalating into a full-blown diplomatic crisis.

On Wednesday, CNN reported that US intelligence officials are assessing the possibility that the balloon was not deliberately maneuvered into the continental US by the Chinese government and are examining whether it was diverted off course by strong winds, according to multiple people briefed on the intelligence.

Any intelligence suggesting that the balloon’s path into the US may have been unintentional could potentially ease tensions between the two nations.

Wang, who was named Xi’s top foreign policy adviser last month, has already visited France and Italy this week and is expected to visit Russia after the Munich conference.

The trip will be a test of Beijing’s attempt to strike a diplomatic balancing act between boosting relations with the West and maintaining close ties with Moscow.

China’s relationship with Europe has come under significant stress in the wake of the Ukraine war. Beijing has refused to condemn the invasion outright or support numerous measures against it at the United Nations. China has also continued to partner with the Russian military during large-scale exercises, while boosting its trade and fuel purchases from Moscow.

According to China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Wang’s visit to Moscow will provide an opportunity for China and Russia to continue to develop their strategic partnership and “exchange views” on “international and regional hotspot issues of shared interest” – a catch-all phrase often used to allude to topics, including the war in Ukraine.

The Foreign Ministry did not specify whether Wang would meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“China is ready to take this visit as an opportunity and work with Russia to promote steady growth of bilateral relations in the direction identified by the two heads of state, defend the legitimate rights and interests of both sides, and play an active role for world peace,” spokesman Wang Wenbin said.

Wang’s visit may also foreshadow a state visit by Xi to Moscow later this year. Putin extended an invitation to Xi during a customary end-of-year call between the two leaders, but China’s Foreign Ministry has yet to confirm any plans.

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