Home / News / World /  How a balloon burst Sino-American talks
This handout photo from Chase Doak taken on February 1, 2023 shows a suspected Chinese spy balloon in the sky over Billings, Montana. The Pentagon said February 2 it was tracking a Chinese spy balloon flying high over the US, reviving tensions between the two countries just days ahead of a rare visit to Beijing by the top US diplomat. (AFP PHOTO/CHASE DOAK)Premium
This handout photo from Chase Doak taken on February 1, 2023 shows a suspected Chinese spy balloon in the sky over Billings, Montana. The Pentagon said February 2 it was tracking a Chinese spy balloon flying high over the US, reviving tensions between the two countries just days ahead of a rare visit to Beijing by the top US diplomat. (AFP PHOTO/CHASE DOAK)

  • America’s top diplomat cancels his trip to Beijing

Of all the things that could have upended the first trip to China by an American secretary of state since 2018, few would have bet on a Chinese balloon over Montana. On February 2nd the Pentagon revealed that it was tracking the high-altitude inflatable, which it said was for intelligence gathering. The next day American officials said the White House was postponing Antony Blinken’s visit to Beijing, which had been due to start on February 5th. -

Both sides had been hoping that the visit would consolidate a recent lull in tensions following a meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping in Bali in November. Mr Blinken’s trip may yet be rescheduled. For the moment, though, the overriding concern in the White House was that the balloon saga would hijack talks that must also tackle highly sensitive issues such as Taiwan and China’s support for Russia over the war in Ukraine.

The decision was announced just a few hours before Mr Blinken was due to leave Washington and shortly after China issued an unusually quick and contrite statement, saying that a Chinese “civilian airship", used mainly for meteorological research, had been blown off course. “The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure," it said, adding that China would continue to communicate with American authorities and “properly handle this unexpected situation".

The Pentagon’s press secretary, Brigadier General Patrick Ryder, disputed China’s assertion that the balloon was a meteorological device. “The fact is, 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 American airspace and international law, and that American authorities had conveyed that 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, called explicitly for the visit to be cancelled. The House of Representatives’ new Republican speaker, Kevin McCarthy, demanded an intelligence briefing for the “Gang of Eight" panel of lawmakers that includes the top Republican and Democratic leadership in the House and Senate, plus the heads of each chamber’s intelligence committee.

Nor was the outrage confined to Republicans. The leaders of the House’s new bipartisan China Select Committee issued a statement calling the balloon’s incursion a violation of American sovereignty and citing it as evidence that China’s recent diplomatic overtures did not represent a substantive change in policy. “The Chinese Communist Party should not have on-demand access to American airspace," said the statement from the committee’s Republican chairman, Mike Gallagher, and its ranking Democrat, Raja Krishnamoorthi.

Former President Donald Trump, meanwhile, posted “SHOOT DOWN THE BALLOON!" on his Truth Social media platform. The Pentagon said on February 2nd that it had been keeping tabs on the balloon but military commanders had advised Mr Biden not to shoot it down for fear that falling debris might harm civilians on the ground. American authorities took “custody" of the balloon when it entered American airspace a couple of days earlier and had observed it with piloted military aircraft, one American official told reporters.

One thing the incident makes abundantly clear is that the political atmosphere in Washington has become so hostile towards China that it will be hard for Mr Biden and Mr Xi to follow up on their commitment to find issues of global concern where they can co-operate, such as climate change. Mr Xi also faces an uphill struggle in trying to reassure Western businesses alarmed by his recent policies—and tensions over Taiwan—and to convince them to continue doing business with China.

Much less clear is what the Chinese balloon (or airship) is designed for and how it ended up floating into American airspace. It appeared this week high in the sky above Montana, to be greeted with amazement among observers on the ground. Some watchers at first took it for a day-time star. Analysts struggled to understand what it was doing there. In an age when the sky is full of satellites providing very detailed imagery of the Earth’s surface, China seemed to have reverted to an inferior intelligence-gathering technology first used by the French in the 18th century and, since the end of the cold war, largely superseded by newer techniques.

Some pointed out that balloons offer higher-quality intelligence than satellites can provide, and do so at much lower cost, being far cheaper to launch and much easier to retrieve. They operate at a height of 24,000-37,000 metres, well above commercial aircraft, but far closer to the ground than satellites in low-Earth orbit, which are 160-2,000km up. And rather than whisking past, they can loiter over an area of interest.

According to the Pentagon, this one had taken several days to travel from China, having crossed the Aleutian islands off Alaska and then north-west Canada. Montana, it was pointed out, 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 intercontinental ballistic missiles. Or perhaps, some wondered, the balloon’s main purpose was not to snoop with cameras, but to suck up digital data. Some communication systems use short-range high frequencies that can be absorbed by the atmosphere, which might be more easily monitored from a balloon.

Still, it was baffling. The assessment of American defence 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 imagines it might go undetected. This one was, after all, visible to the naked eye. And China itself tends to react fiercely when America conducts aerial surveillance close to its territory, so it could hardly feign surprise at the American anger over the encroaching balloon.

Some thought China wanted to flaunt a new intelligence-gathering capability and to embarrass America’s government, which publicly responded only after the balloon had reached Montana. If the balloon picked up any useful intelligence, it would be an added bonus. Meteorological devices can gather data that is useful for military purposes, including guiding ballistic missiles.

Others thought the timing for such a deliberate provocation would be odd given Mr Xi’s apparent desire to stabilise relations with America and focus on dealing with covid-19 and an economic slowdown at home. They cited the uncharacteristic speed and contrition of China’s statement as indications that it was probably a genuine error. Either way, the balloon has added an unexpected new irritant to an already deeply fraught relationship.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.

From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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