How a Balloon Popped Sino-American Talks

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Both sides hoped the visit would cement a recent lull in tensions following a meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping in Bali in November. Mr. Blinken’s trip may still be rescheduled. For now, however, the main concern in the White House was that the balloon saga would hijack talks that must also address highly sensitive issues such as Taiwan and China’s support for Russia in the war in Ukraine.

The decision was announced just hours before Blinken was due to leave Washington and shortly after China issued an unusually quick and contrite statement saying a Chinese “civilian airship,” used primarily for weather research, had blown off course. The Chinese side regrets the unintentional entry of the aircraft into the US airspace due to force majeure,” he said, adding that China will continue to communicate with the US authorities and “properly handle this unexpected situation.”

Pentagon press secretary Brigadier General Patrick Ryder disputed China’s claim that the balloon was a weather device. “The fact is that we know it’s a surveillance balloon,” he said. “I’m not going to be able to be more specific than that.” He added that the balloon had violated US airspace and international law, and that US authorities had passed it on to the Chinese government at multiple levels.

China’s explanation also failed to convince its critics in Congress. Tom Cotton, a Republican senator from Arkansas, explicitly called for the visit to be cancelled. New Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has demanded an intelligence briefing for the “Gang of Eight” panel of lawmakers that includes top Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, plus the heads of the intelligence committees of each chamber.

The outrage was not limited to Republicans either. Leaders of the new bipartisan China House Select Committee issued a statement calling the balloon incursion a violation of US sovereignty and citing it as evidence that China’s recent diplomatic proposals did not represent a substantive change in the policy. “The Chinese Communist Party should not have on-demand access to US airspace,” said the statement from the committee’s Republican chairman, Mike Gallagher, and its ranking Democrat, Raja Krishnamoorthi.

Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump posted “THE GLOBE HURTS!” on his social media platform Truth. The Pentagon said on February 2 that it had been keeping an eye on the balloon, but military commanders had advised Biden not to shoot it down because of US authorities taking “custody” of the balloon when it entered US airspace a couple of days earlier and they had observed with piloted military aircraft, a US official told reporters.

One thing the incident makes abundantly clear is that the political atmosphere in Washington has turned so hostile toward China that it will be difficult for Biden and Xi to follow through on their commitment to find issues of global concern on which they can cooperate. like climate change. Xi also faces an uphill battle as he tries to reassure Western companies alarmed by his recent policies, and the tensions over Taiwan, and convince them to continue doing business with China.

Much less clear is what the Chinese balloon (or aircraft) is designed for and how it ended up floating in US airspace. It appeared high in the Montana sky this week, to be greeted with amazement by observers on the ground. At first some observers took it for a daytime star. Analysts struggled to understand what he was doing there. In an era when the sky is filled with satellites providing highly detailed images of the Earth’s surface, China seemed to have reverted to inferior intelligence-gathering technology first used by the French in the 18th century and, since the end of the cold war, largely superseded by new techniques.

Some pointed out that balloons offer higher quality intelligence than satellites can, and do so at much lower cost, being much cheaper to launch and much easier to recover. They operate at an altitude of 24,000-37,000 meters, well above commercial aircraft, but much closer to the ground than low-Earth orbit satellites, which are 160-2,000 km high. And instead of zipping by, they may loiter in an area of ​​interest.

According to the Pentagon, it had taken several days to travel from China, having crossed the Aleutian Islands off Alaska and then northwestern Canada. Montana, it was noted, may be of particular interest to China. It has, near the city of Great Falls, one of three air force bases that operate and maintain Minuteman III ICBMs. Or perhaps, some wondered, the balloon’s main purpose was not to poke around with cameras, but to absorb digital data. Some communication systems use short-range high frequencies that can be absorbed by the atmosphere, which could be more easily monitored from a balloon.

Still, it was disconcerting. The assessment of US defense officials, shared by most experts, is that the intelligence-gathering benefits of using a balloon are very limited. Nor is it very likely that China would imagine that it could go unnoticed. This one was, after all, visible to the naked eye. And China itself tends to react fiercely when the United States conducts aerial surveillance close to its territory, so it could hardly feign surprise at American anger over the invasion of the globe.

Some thought China wanted to flaunt a new intelligence-gathering capability and embarrass the US government, which responded publicly only after the balloon reached Montana. If the balloon picked up any useful intelligence, that would be an added bonus. Weather devices can collect data that is useful for military purposes, including guidance ballistic missiles.

Others thought the timing for such a deliberate provocation would be strange given Xi’s apparent desire to stabilize relations with the United States and focus on dealing with Covid-19 and an economic slowdown at home. They cited the unusual speed and regret of China’s statement as indications that it was likely a genuine mistake. Either way, the balloon has added an unexpected new irritant to an already deeply strained relationship.

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