WASHINGTON DC – “There’s another one.” During a conference on Saturday (11 February) to discuss the resurgence of great power rivalry, one of my fellow panellists passed me his phone with the latest bulletin from the North American Aerospace Defense Command (Norad). It was tracking an unidentified “high-altitude airborne object” over northern Canada. US and Canadian aircraft had been scrambled to monitor it. Just before 2pm, Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau announced that it had been shot down on his orders by a US F-22 Raptor fighter jet.
This was the second such incident in as many days. On Friday (10 February), an F-22 had shot down another flying object in US airspace off the coast of Alaska. There was very little information about what it was, beyond that it was “cylindrical” and “silver-ish grey”. It was said to be around the size of a small car and floating through the sky with no apparent means of propulsion. The wreckage was scattered over sea ice, where US military personnel were battling sub-zero temperatures and limited daylight to recover the remnants.
On Sunday (12 February), the Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer said intelligence officials believed that both these latest objects were balloons, but that they were much smaller than the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon shot down on 4 February. That balloon was estimated to be around 200 feet tall, with a payload around the size of a regional jet. It was assessed to be part of a vast aerial surveillance programme targeting five continents over several years, which had only been uncovered several months ago. “It is wild that we didn’t know,” said Schumer. “Now they are learning a lot more.” There was no evidence that either of the two later balloons were linked to China or the first incident.
Yet there was more still to come. Later on Sunday, a fourth high-altitude object was shot down over Lake Huron in Michigan, close to the Canadian border. This time it was described as having an “octagonal structure” with strings dangling from it. Defence officials said it was likely the same object that had been spotted on radar over Montana the previous day, causing Norad to deploy fighter jets to try to locate it.
[See also: The curious case of the Chinese spy balloon]
This was the third day in a row that a high-altitude object had been shot down in the skies over North America. Instead of the countdown to the Superbowl that evening, the US’s most-watched sports event, news networks were dominated by balloon-related hysteria and understandable questions about what is going on up there.
Part of the answer may be that the US military is currently focused on looking for precisely this sort of thing. Since the first suspected Chinese surveillance balloon was identified on 28 January, Norad has readjusted some of its radars and sensors to better track slower-moving, high-altitude objects. As one US official put it to the Washington Post, “We basically opened the filters.”
The fact that two of the three latest incidents took place in remote areas where the recovery operations are particularly challenging has also made it harder to get quick answers as to what, exactly, was shot down, and whether these events are linked, or not. Still, Jim Himes, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, urged the Joe Biden administration on Sunday to quickly share any available details with the American population. The failure to provide answers soon, he warned, could fuel public fears about what was happening, and whether countries like China or Russia could be responsible.
As I wrote last week, the incidents are stoking the already febrile atmosphere in Washington, where one thing that the divided Congress agrees on is the need to take a hard line on China. In a vanishingly rare act of bipartisan cooperation on 9 February, the House voted unanimously, 419-0, to condemn China’s “brazen violation of United States sovereignty”. Mike Turner, a Republican congressman from Ohio who chairs the House intelligence committee, said that in the current circumstances it was better to be “trigger-happy than to be permissive”.
The US secretary of state Antony Blinken had been due to visit Beijing the same weekend that the first balloon was shot down as part of efforts by both countries to establish “strategic guardrails” around the unravelling US-China relationship. Instead Blinken’s trip has been indefinitely postponed, and it is increasingly hard to see the conditions in which it could be rescheduled given the growing political outrage in Washington, and China’s own behaviour over the past nine days.
Despite an uncharacteristically conciliatory statement from the Chinese foreign ministry on 3 February expressing “regrets” for what it insisted was the unintended entry of a “civilian airship” into US airspace, officials have since reverted to the more usual tactic of denouncing American actions and insisting that China has done nothing wrong. The Chinese defence ministry reportedly declined a request for a phone call between US defence secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe after the first balloon was shot down.
The irony is that the ongoing balloon saga demonstrates the need for effective crisis communications between the two powers, at the same time as it has made that harder to achieve. No matter what is uncovered about the three latest objects to be shot down – or whether this turns out to be just an unfortunate coincidence – the last nine days have shown that the best chance of stabilising US-China relations and avoiding a more serious crisis may be fading. It will take brave leadership on both sides and a willingness to risk being seen to compromise to turn this around. Domestic political imperatives in both countries make the opposite more likely; driving both leaders to adopt a stance that is strong and unyielding, and erring on the side of being “trigger-happy” rather than “permissive”.