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Your Monday Briefing: The U.S. Shoots Down China’s Balloon

The weekend’s diplomatic firestorm over a Chinese surveillance balloon that floated across the continental U.S. illustrated the mistrust and tensions between the two powers. But both countries may be trying to avoid an escalation.

The U.S. publicly came down hard on China after the balloon was detected over Montana on Friday. The U.S. shot it down over the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday. (Here’s a video.) Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, canceled a trip to Beijing planned for this week. But to do so, he called Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official. That shows that both sides want to keep the communication going, an expert said.

China registered “strong discontent and protest” to what it described as “an excessive reaction.” It claimed that the balloon was a civilian research airship blown off course, not a tool for surveillance.

But its carefully worded statement suggests that Beijing may choose not to drag out the spat. Xi Jinping, China’s leader, has spent the first few months of his third term trying to ease tensions with Western countries, which are firming their alliances to contain Chinese power. He’s also trying to avoid antagonizing the U.S., as China attempts to recover from the economic impact of “zero Covid.”

Analysis: There was no indication the balloon posed a serious military or intelligence threat to the U.S. But its symbolic flight added volatility to a relationship that is at the core of the world’s most pressing challenges.

Pakistan’s former military ruler, who died yesterday in a Dubai hospital, ruled during a critical period in the country’s relations with the U.S. From 1999, when he took power in a bloodless coup, to 2008, when he resigned under threat of impeachment, Pervez Musharraf’s time in power exposed many of Pakistan’s paradoxes.

He was close to the U.S. after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the U.S. attack on Afghanistan that followed. During his years in power, the U.S. gave Pakistan aid worth more than $1 billion a year. But U.S. officials became frustrated with what they viewed as his refusal to crush terrorist groups that maintained bases and training camps in tribal areas of Pakistan.

Their demands for firm action against Islamist militancy collided with pressures from Pakistani Muslims and growing anti-Western resistance. Every time Musharraf made even a tentative effort to crack down on foreign fighters from the Taliban and Al Qaeda, he faced mass protests, often led by religious leaders.

Domestic politics: Musharraf maintained a measure of democracy, embraced economic reforms and promoted secularism, all of which helped to bring few friends in a country where religious radicals wielded broad influence.

Covid data from China is famously unreliable, and many believe its official death toll — about 80,000 — is a vast undercount. So my colleagues scoured the obituaries of top academics for clues about the true toll.

The obituaries did not specify a cause of death, but my colleagues observed a spike that coincided with the country’s coronavirus outbreak.

In October, four members of two of China’s most prestigious institutions died. That’s in line with the average in recent years. But after China dropped its “zero Covid” policy in early December, the obituaries mounted. In the past two months, 40 scholars from those institutions died.

Economy: Consumer spending has picked up in China. But the scars of “zero Covid” remain.

Imagine that men started waking in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat. They stumbled to work, exhausted, and confronted wild mood swings. Sex suddenly became painful as their penises became dry and irritable, even showing signs of what doctors called “atrophy.”

Now imagine that there was an effective treatment, which could ease the long-term symptoms. But doctors had little training on how to manage their suffering — or routinely dismissed the process as natural.

For many women undergoing menopause, this is a depressingly accurate picture of reality.

For more: My colleague Susan Dominus spoke to The Morning about her reporting: “There is some sexism at play.”

In the next few hours, Beyoncé may become the most awarded artist in Grammy history. She needs four wins at the Grammy Awards, which will begin after we send out this newsletter, to pass the conductor Georg Solti for the most awards overall.

Beyoncé is riding high. She has a field-leading nine nominations and, for the third time, she is nominated in three top categories — record, song and album of the year. But she is just one for 13 in the major, all-genre categories for releases on which she was a lead artist. The key question isn’t how big she will win, but: What if she loses, again?

The outcome could have major implications for the perception of the Grammys’ relevance. Viewership has been low for years amid longstanding criticism that Black artists are too often passed over for top awards. A win could burnish the Grammys’ image — and give Beyoncé her crowning moment.

Here’s how to watch, and a list of nominees.

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