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Report: Biden admin held back on taking actions against China for spy balloon to 'limit damage' to US-China relations
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Report: Biden admin held back on taking actions against China for spy balloon to 'limit damage' to US-China relations

When a Chinese spy balloon traversed the United States in early February, Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a scheduled diplomatic trip to China. The cancelation was meant to demonstrate U.S. displeasure with the espionage program.

But a new report suggests the public-facing actions were nothing more than a smokescreen.

What are the details?

Reuters obtained internal State Department emails showing that top government officials sought to mitigate straining relations with China.

Instead of taking action against China for its espionage, the State Department "held back human rights-related sanctions, export controls and other sensitive actions to try to limit damage to the U.S.-China relationship," Reuters reported.

For example, Rick Waters, deputy assistant secretary of State for China and Taiwan, sent an email to his staffers in the Office on China Coordination on Feb. 6 explaining that planned actions against China were postponed.

"Guidance from S is to push non-balloon actions to the right so we can focus on symmetric and calibrated response. We can revisit other actions in a few weeks," the email said, Reuters reported.

"S" is a reference to Blinken.

Apparently, the postponement of those "non-balloon actions" against China was indefinite because they "have yet to be revived," according to Reuters.

Meanwhile, Waters allegedly said in a March staff meeting that the State Department would "move on" from the spy balloon fiasco, apparently a nod that the department would not take any counter-actions against communist China.

The decision to "move on" reportedly came from Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, to whom Blinken has delegated China policy duties, because she was eager to reschedule Blinken's trip. Blinken confirmed in an interview last week that he wants to reschedule his trip and heal diplomatic tensions with China.

"I think it's important ... that we re-establish regular lines of communication at all levels and across our government," Blinken said. "We're in a competition with China; there’s no secret about that. But we have a strong interest in trying to make sure that that competition doesn’t veer into conflict."

Part of healing the tensions, Reuters suggested, is delaying — or thwarting altogether — public release of an FBI report about the Chinese spy balloon. Sources told the publication that a report was originally scheduled for release in mid-April, but Beijing has told U.S. officials they don't want any details of the balloon incident publicized.

What did the State Department say?

The agency implicitly denied putting aside counter-actions, arguing the State Department has "coordinated with the interagency on a record-setting number of sanctions, export controls, and other competitive actions" against China.

"Without commenting on specific actions, this work is sensitive and complex, and obviously sequencing is essential to maximize impact and make sure our messaging is clear and lands precisely," the agency official told Reuters.

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