All it takes is a balloon to evaporate any hopes of a thaw in the frozen ties between China and the United States. The US shot down a Chinese balloon which the communist say is nothing more than a communications set-up and which the Americans have already declared a spy in the air at 60,000 feet.
As the Washington Post wrote of the affair: “…in arguably one of the most dramatic incidents in years involving the United States and China, it was an unmanned balloon, bobbing along on a meandering stratospheric path across the US mainland, that set the proverbial cat among the pigeons.”
After tracking the Chinese balloon – which by the way is as big as three buses – in American airspace and a week after the Americans first identified it transited over an Alaskan archipelago, an F-22 Raptor jet fired a missile at the balloon, destroying it.
China, which is said to be developing some of the world’s best space and scyber technologies, was all innocence as it described the balloon as a communications assistant and put up a determined face, saying it would give a befitting reply to the Americans.
The Americans say they have no doubt it is a Chinese intelligence asset. After it was shot down, the debris dropped into the ocean. Only if it is retrieved would the real identity of the balloon would be know.
Balloons, scientists say, are better spies than low-orbit satellites because they can linger over locations and extract sharper pictures and videos of areas surveyed. For instance, this balloon could hover longer over collection targets like the ICBM field in Montana that was overflown a few days ago, but they’re not stationary, and their signals-collection ability isn’t radically different from other systems available to the Chinese, according to a Pentagon official.
The Chinese have been dispatching intelligence-collection balloons for years. The Pentagon official said Saturday night that five Chinese balloons have circumnavigated the globe, and China has conducted 20 to 30 balloon missions globally over the past decade.
Experts in national security and aerospace claimed the balloon appeared to share characteristics with high-altitude balloons used by developed countries around the world for weather forecasting, telecommunications and scientific research.
It’s not clear what the balloon was using to maneuver through the stratosphere. Some high-altitude balloons are carried by the current, while others may use a semiautonomous navigation system to set their course. In some cases, they navigate by finding a wind current heading in the intended direction and lock into it by moving up or down in the air. When these types of balloons finish their flights, their sensor package detaches and parachutes back down to earth, where it’s picked up for analysis. In some cases, an aircraft can collect it while the balloon is still in the sky.
The American media says the “public spectacle of a spy balloon floating over America” was an embarrassment for the Biden administration. But the administration claims it waited till the balloon was in American air space before shooting it down. Republicans are already claiming the administration showed weakness in allowing the balloon to enter US airspace.
The Washington Post says that “by waiting until the balloon was over U.S. territorial waters, the Biden administration was able to maximize the likelihood that the pod could be recovered while minimizing the risk that Americans would be injured by falling debris”.
The balloon episode will have far-reaching consequences on bilateral ties. The first victim was the proposed trip of Secretary of State Antony Blinken to China at the end of the culmination of months of delicate back-channeling and dialogue. But the balloon led to a delay in the visit.
If China does not work toward repairing the relations, the episode may even endanger the meeting between President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping that is being planned in Indonesia this November.
China has more to lose because of the balloon because it has been trying in the new year to put a friendlier face before the world and wanting to expand its role in the international community. At the latest Davos meet of the World Economic Forum too, China said it would continue its process of liberalization and opening up even further.
The world is waiting for a seasoned response from the Chinese about the balloon episode. Given the balloon was found over American airspace, there would be no takers for any angry response from China. It all depends on how serious China is to mend its ties with the US and whether the balloon gives the Americans a new leverage to drive a harder bargain when both leaderships meet next.