Editor’s note: The US military shot down the surveillance balloon over the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday (4 February) on the orders of President Biden.
The first reports broke on Thursday (2 February). The United States military had detected what it believed to be a Chinese surveillance balloon in American airspace. Fighter jets had been scrambled to track it. The president had been informed. The Pentagon had advised him, for now, against shooting it down due to the risk of debris to people on the ground.
More details emerged over the hours that followed. It turned out that the balloon had first been spotted by a civilian airliner on Wednesday (1 February). Defence officials had traced its route from Alaska’s Aleutian Islands to Montana, in the country’s north west, where the US maintains an arsenal of nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, and where the balloon now appeared to be loitering. The Department of Defense said that this was not the first time that Chinese spy balloons had been spotted over the US, but that this one was hanging around for longer than usual. It said it was taking action to shield “sensitive sites” from surveillance, but that the systems the balloon was equipped with had “limited additive value” over the imagery Beijing could already access through satellites.
Then the political storm broke. By Thursday evening the US house speaker Kevin McCarthy was condemning “China’s brazen disregard for US sovereignty” and demanding that President Biden address Beijing’s “destabilising action”. High-profile Republicans, such as the far-right Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor-Greene, who were already eager for a fight with China, demanded that the military “shoot it down.” On Friday morning the former president Donald Trump weighed in, posting on his Truth Social platform: “SHOOT DOWN THE BALLOON.”
The timing for the Biden administration, and the trajectory of US-China relations, could not be worse. Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, had been due to travel to Beijing this weekend for a meeting with the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, that was aimed at stabilising the deteriorating relationship between the two countries. This follows a meeting between Biden and Xi at the G20 summit in Bali in November, their first in-person meeting as leaders, where the US president stressed the importance of avoiding a “new Cold War” and they signalled their mutual desire to halt what had begun to look like a spiral towards open confrontation.
China’s foreign ministry expressed its “regrets” over the incident on Friday, insisting that the balloon was a “civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes” that had unintentionally entered US airspace “due to force majeure”. But it was too late. The State Department announced that Blinken’s trip to Beijing had been postponed indefinitely. US officials said he did not want his meetings to be dominated by the balloon.
And just like that, the best chance of improving US-China relations in months, perhaps years, floated away. Unlike the balloon, which is apparently still up there.