A stray balloon has precipitated a full-blown diplomatic crisis in U.S.-China relations. Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a planned trip to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping after NBC News reported that American military officials are monitoring a Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon tens of thousands of feet above the continental United States. Chinese officials have expressed regret for the “unintended entry” of the balloon into U.S. airspace and insisted that it was a civilian research vessel used for “mainly meteorological” purposes. The Pentagon has repeatedly asserted that the balloon poses no imminent threat to aircraft or people on the ground, and little threat of surveillance beyond that available to China by other means. At The New York Times, Edward Wong, Helene Cooper, and Chris Buckley reported on Blinken’s decision to cancel his trip to China and what would have been the first meeting with Xi Jinping by a U.S. Secretary of State since 2018:
“I made clear that the presence of the surveillance balloon in U.S. airspace is a clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law, that it’s an irresponsible act and that the P.R.C. decision to take this action on the eve of my planned visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have,” Mr. Blinken said at a news conference on Friday afternoon, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
[…] Mr. Blinken and Wendy Sherman, the deputy secretary of state, spoke with the Chinese Embassy on Wednesday night about the balloon, and American diplomats in Beijing spoke with Chinese officials there, State Department officials said. They and Pentagon officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivities over the balloon.
[…] Jessica Chen Weiss, a political scientist at Cornell University who recently worked in the State Department on China policy, said the decision to cancel Mr. Blinken’s trip “reflects the unfortunate triumph of symbolism over substance.”
[…] Daniel Russel, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific and a vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said “the administration clearly was dissatisfied with the Chinese government’s public expression of regret — perhaps because Beijing insisted on hiding behind the laughable alibi that this was a weather balloon blown off course.” [Source]
The US accused China of spying after a mysterious balloon was spotted over Montana — where nuclear missile silos are located.
But Beijing insists it's just a weather research device that blew off course. pic.twitter.com/9WBCch6hRT
— DW News (@dwnews) February 3, 2023
This is not the first time that a Chinese surveillance balloon has been identified above United States territory—at least one previous incident occurred under President Trump. The current balloon, reportedly about the size of three school buses, is believed to have “limited additive value” as an intelligence gathering mechanism, meaning that China is unlikely to be gathering much sensitive information it could not already collect through satellites or other means. Bloomberg News reports that the balloon’s flight path has taken it over areas where U.S. officials believe the Chinese government already operates satellites that can take high-resolution images of sensitive areas. Blake Herzinger, a non-resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Financial Times: “We need to at least consider the possibility that this was a mistake […] Beijing isn’t insane. Sending a balloon over the continental United States to collect against something they can surely do clandestinely from space is a totally unnecessary risk.”
China’s claim that the balloon was simply blown off course is not completely implausible. Dan Jaffe, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at the University of Washington, told The Associated Press that it was not only “absolutely possible” but “likely” that the balloon was blown into the United States by high winds above the Pacific. However, BBC Weather’s Simon King noted that: “Most weather balloons rise to about 100,000ft and then blow apart after a few hours, with the equipment falling to Earth by parachute. It is unusual for a weather balloon to last days like this.”
At The Washington Post, Victoria Bisset, Andrew Jeong, Lyric Li, Claire Parker, and John Hudson wrote about an interview with Chinese politics expert Steve Tsang of SOAS University of London, who speculated about the possible motivations the Chinese government might have had in launching the balloon:
Professor Steve Tsang, the director of the China Institute at the SOAS University of London, said that given China’s access to advanced technology, any spy balloon probably would be of more “symbolic value, showing that the Chinese are able to send something in the air to survey U.S. military installations.”
“And they’re doing it because for decades the U.S. have been sending spy planes along the Chinese coast and sometimes over Chinese airspace to monitor the Chinese in ways that they couldn’t do very much about,” he said. “And now they can, so they are.”
[…] Without access to the object, it’s not possible to rule out that it is, in fact, a weather balloon, Tsang said — but this “would be hard for the U.S. to believe” because of the balloon’s proximity to sensitive military areas. [Source]
Chinese state-run tabloid Global Times ran contradictory pieces on the balloon. In one, Global Times quoted a smattering of Chinese experts who speculated that the balloon could have been launched by American commercial boats or the U.S. military, and alleged that the claim it is a Chinese surveillance balloon is an “arbitrary accusation” intended to “hype the China threat” and “destabilize” the country. A second article quoted the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s admission that the unmanned vehicle originated in China. Online, Chinese netizens seemed to find the whole thing humorous. A popular pun compared the journeying balloon to the Chinese sci-fi blockbuster, “The Wandering Earth.”
The cancellation of Blinken’s trip comes nearly two years after his first face-to-face meeting with Chinese diplomats in Anchorage, Alaska devolved into public bickering. U.S. officials had privately expressed pessimism about the trip’s outcome, though there were some hopes for countering production and trafficking of fentanyl, and securing more visas for journalists and professionals. Nevertheless, the cancellation underscores the challenges facing U.S.-China diplomacy. At The Washington Post, Cate Cadell, John Hudson, and Yasmeen Abutaleb reported on the diplomatic blow-up caused by the wayward balloon:
When pressed why the administration called off the trip, given the view of U.S. defense officials that the Chinese balloon was not able to collect significant intelligence, a State Department official said the incident “would have significantly narrowed the agenda” of the trip.
[…] Chinese surveillance balloons have been sighted “multiple times over the last five years” in the Pacific, including near Hawaii, said one U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity. In February of last year, for instance, one such balloon was spotted in the vicinity of Hawaii, the official said. “What they’re doing is not new,” the official said.
[…] “There’s all this hopeful happy talk outside of government about the U.S. and China restoring guardrails,” said Christopher B. Johnstone, a former Biden White House aide on East Asia issues and a former CIA officer. “But there’s clearly deep pessimism inside the government about how far they can get if they’re willing to pull down this visit over a balloon.” [Source]