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6 February 2023

The balloon debacle is a needless crisis – but a crisis nonetheless

Whether it was a spy balloon or not, US politicians’ ability to take a nuanced approach to Beijing has been made even more difficult.

By Katie Stallard

WASHINGTON DC – The balloon is down. I repeat, the Chinese surveillance balloon is down. After floating across the United States for most of last week, the balloon was shot down by an F-22 fighter jet using a heat-seeking missile off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday (4 February). Of course, this being America, the whole thing took place live on television. The major news networks showed the balloon drifting out over the Atlantic Ocean. Then you saw the condensation trails of the aircraft streaking towards it. The balloon ruptured and plummeted towards the sea. Somebody watching from the shore shouted: “We got him!”

We now know that the US president Joe Biden was first briefed about the balloon on Tuesday 31 January, and that it travelled over Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and Canada before hovering over Montana in the north-western US on Wednesday. As I wrote about here, the latter is home to the Malmstrom Air Force Base, where the US maintains an arsenal of nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

On Friday (3 February), China’s foreign ministry apologised, sort of. “The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure,” a spokesperson said, insisting that the balloon was a “civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes”.

But the US did not buy this. “The fact is, we know that it’s a surveillance balloon,” the Pentagon press secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder told reporters on Friday, adding that the US believed the balloon was manoeuvrable. (James Snell writes more about the Pentagon reaction here.)

The even bigger problem is that Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state was meant to be travelling to Beijing this weekend for a meeting with the Chinese leader Xi Jinping in an attempt to stabilise the worsening relationship between the two countries. Blinken’s trip had been intended to “establish a floor” beneath the relationship and ensure that effective lines of communication, which would be essential during a crisis, were in place. Instead, Blinken has postponed his trip indefinitely.

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There are urgent matters for the two sides to discuss. The new US house speaker Kevin McCarthy is understood to be planning to visit Taiwan, the self-governing island claimed by Beijing, as soon as this spring. When the then house speaker Nancy Pelosi travelled to Taiwan last August, some Chinese commentators called for her plane to be shot down and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fired missiles over the island after she had left. The Chinese military says it has already stepped up exercises around Taiwan in preparation for any McCarthy visit.

Then there is the domestic political fallout in the US. As the balloon drifted overhead last week, the former president Donald Trump, along with other high-profile Republicans, such as the far-right Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, demanded that the military shoot down the balloon and questioned why it had been allowed to traverse so many sensitive sites. For Washington’s China hawks, who already wanted the Biden administration to take a tougher line against Beijing, the threat they had been warning about was suddenly tangible. Where previously they had pointed to the implied threat of Chinese technology, political influence operations, and the possibility of a future conflict over Taiwan, now they claimed to have a concrete example of Beijing’s supposedly malign intent literally floating overhead.

In this environment, it will be even harder than it already was for American politicians to pursue a nuanced approach towards Beijing, especially as the 2024 presidential election cycle gets under way, without being accused of being weak on China.

Beijing, too, has come out fighting. Despite its apparent contrition earlier in the affair, following the decision to shoot down the balloon on 4 February, the Chinese foreign ministry announced its “strong discontent and protest”, declaring the use of force “an excessive reaction that seriously violates international convention”. The statement vowed to “resolutely defend the legitimate rights and interests of the enterprise involved” and warned that China “retains the right to respond further”.

This is a needless crisis. Both Beijing and Washington have demonstrated in recent months that they understand that it is in their mutual interests to manage their disagreements and calm tensions.

Yet for both sides, there are important principles at stake, along with their respective domestic politics. So far, neither country shows any intention of backing down, and there may be worse still to come. The Pentagon has already said that it does not believe this is an isolated incident, but rather is part of a far-reaching programme of Chinese balloon-based surveillance spanning five continents.

While the balloon itself is no more, the diplomatic crisis ignited by its flight is still unfolding. Even as the crowds in South Carolina celebrated the downing of one balloon, another had already been spotted over Latin America.

A version of this article first appeared in the World Review newsletter. It comes out every Monday; subscribe here to receive it.

[See also: What the US midterm results mean for Joe Biden]

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