Chinese Surveillance Balloon: Implications for US-China Relations

A giant size balloon was flying in the sky. It is an incident from a few days ago. The fact remains that the balloon was Chinese, and the sky area belonged to the United States.

This balloon incident has escalated tensions between the two nations just prior to the visit of a top US diplomat to Beijing. US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken,  postponed his trip to China in response to the alleged Chinese spy balloon floating over the US, ushering in a new phase in the tensions between Washington and Beijing. US authorities have claimed that the balloon was soaring above secret locations in an effort to obtain information. A representative for the Pentagon stated that similar surveillance activities had been observed in recent years and added that the US had taken precautions to make sure the balloon was not gathering sensitive data.

On Feb. 4, 2023, the suspected Chinese spy balloon was brought down by US military fighter plane over the Atlantic Ocean near the country’s Eastern Seaboard. President Joe Biden has declared the mission a success and stated that he gave the order for the military to shoot down the balloon “as soon as possible” after being informed about it on Wednesday.

While the US officials claimed that the balloon was nothing but a surveillance device and responded by shooting down the Chinese “Spy Balloon , the Chinese government has asserted that the balloon in question is not a surveillance tool but rather a balloon that is being utilized for meteorological research.

In a statement that was released by the Chinese government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China expressed its severe dissatisfaction and outrage over the shooting down of the balloon. China said the United States was “overreacting” and “seriously breaking international norms.” Another statement from the Chinese side claims that they have repeatedly told the US that the airship was utilized for civilian purposes, and inadvertently and accidentally crossed US airspace. As stated by the State Department, it is intolerable that this has occurred because the balloon’s presence in US airspace clearly violates both sovereignty and international law.

Making irrational assumptions and over-hyping the issue won’t help to fix it, according to Mao Ning, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry. Furthermore, some Chinese specialists expressed doubts about Beijing’s use of a surveillance balloon in their commentary on state media, effectively branding it as a “hot air” balloon. We are aware that the US and China both use satellites to spy on one another. China has increased its satellite arsenal from 250 to 500 during the previous few years. Additionally, experts have stated that it is improbable that this surveillance balloon will be capable of gathering any data that satellites do not already possess.

It is suggested by experts, China’s apology indicates that President Xi was caught off guard. One view is that he would not have agreed to such a mission at this time as he is working to attract foreign investment and build stronger ties with the US. As Biden met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in November, 2022  the bilateral connection was strengthening. The result of more intensive discussions between Washington and Beijing in the two months following the G20 meeting in Bali, Indonesia, was going to be Blinken’s trip.

An increase in tension could result from the event, according to Dennis Wilder, a former senior CIA analyst on China. This is especially true if Washington confronts Beijing with solid proof. The possibility of an unintentional collision is increased by the threat of more active Chinese surveillance of regular US reconnaissance flights over the East and South China Seas.

Wu Xinbo, the director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University, opined that member of Congress exacerbated the situation. He stated that “Congressmen with hawkish views amplified the issue of the balloon to impede President Biden’s efforts to gradually improve relations with China.”

Nevertheless, tensions between the two countries escalated after the balloon incident. The intricacy of the relationship between the two countries is becoming more complicated.  The first step from the US government was cancelling the trip of Antony Bilken, US secretary of state. Notwithstanding the Chinese government’s outward display of remorse, the White House’s decision to postpone the long-planned visit demonstrates how severely it takes the situation. If Blinken had gone to China, he would have been the top-ranked Biden administration official to do so, as well as the first US Secretary of State to travel to Beijing in the previous six years. Following high-level discussions among Blinken, President Joe Biden, and other key national security officials, the decision to cancel the visit was taken. Vice Foreign Minister of China Xie Feng submitted a formal complaint about the event with the US embassy on Sunday, criticizing Washington for overreacting to an accident “induced by force majeure.” China, therefore, claimed that the move of the US has damaged the bilateral relations.

Therefore, given that the world has been negatively affected by financial and energy issues caused by the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the public desires to avoid further escalation between the US and China, who are considered as powerful entities. To settle the crisis, both countries should start their diplomatic negotiations. The extent to which this tension will rise is uncertain, though. 

[Photo by Chase Doak, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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