US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart President Xi Jinping met in Bali in Indonesia in November and agreed that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken would travel to Beijing in early 2023 as part of a joint endeavour by the US and Chinese governments to build on their successful Bali Summit.
The US State Department announced last week that Blinken would travel to Beijing on 5-6 February.
However, then came news of a Chinese “spy” balloon flying at high altitude above the continental US and over the Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana where the US military has nuclear missile silos. US officials said on 3 February that a second Chinese balloon had been detected over Latin America.
On 4 February, an F-22 Raptor plane shot down the balloon at exactly 2:39 pm, according to the US Department of Defence, using a single air-to-air Sidewinder missile to do so. Recovery operations for the debris by the US Navy in the presence of US counterintelligence officials immediately started in order to recover as much as possible of the highly sensitive equipment in the balloon.
According to a statement by US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, the downing of the Chinese balloon off the coast of South Carolina was done at the direction of Biden himself who gave the order on 2 February provided that the shooting would not cause harm or damage on the ground and that the US military would wait for the right circumstances to execute the order.
The statement stressed that the Chinese balloon was “an attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States” and that it was an “unacceptable violation” of US sovereignty. It also pointed out that the downing of the balloon had been coordinated with the Canadian government.
In response, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said it “regretted” the balloon’s flying across US airspace, adding that it had been blown off its “original course”.
In a phone call between Blinken and Wang Yi, a former Chinese foreign minister and now the highest official in the politburo of the Chinese Communist Party in charge of foreign affairs, Blinken said that the US administration had decided to postpone his previously scheduled trip to China because the balloon incident had meant that now was “not the right moment” to discuss the future course of US-Chinese relations.
He added that it had been “detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have” in the visit. In response, Yi urged Blinken “to avoid misjudgement over [the] balloon controversy” and emphasised that both governments had committed themselves to dealing with the “controversy” in a “calm and professional manner.”
As expected, the Chinese reacted firmly and forcefully to the shooting down of the balloon, saying that it was a “clear overreaction and a serious violation of international practice.” China “reserves the right to make further responses if necessary,” it said.
In diplomatic speech, the phrase “if necessary” means that China does not want to derail the process of positive engagement with the US that was the positive result of the US-China Summit in Bali last November.
Nevertheless, the Chinese Ministry of Defence accused the US of executing an “excessive attack” on a “civilian” craft in shooting down the balloon. Quoted in last weekend’s edition of the UK newspaper the Financial Times (5-6 February), the ministry added that “we solemnly protest against the US move and reserve the right to use the necessary means to deal with similar ones.”
The “spy” balloon incident brought to mind a similar incident in 1960 at the height of the Cold War when the former Soviet Union shot down a US reconnaissance plane flown by a pilot named Gary Powell.
Moscow at the time was under the leadership of then secretary-general of the Soviet Communist Party Nikita Khrushchev who made quite a noise over the incident that led to the postponement of a scheduled summit meeting with the then US president John Kennedy.
The US reaction to the Chinese “spy” balloon today fits in well with its strategy towards a rising and more powerful China – namely, to keep up the pressure on Beijing and put it on the defensive on a host of questions so that Washington will always have the upper hand in managing its fierce competition with the country.
Similarly, the US reaction speaks of domestic political considerations within the US itself, notably because former US president Donald Trump had said “shoot it down” in an emphatic way. Republican Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Congressman Mike Rogers (R-Alaska) also released a statement in which he called on the White House to “provide answers about why they decided to allow… a spy balloon to cross the United States and what damage to our national security occurred from this decision.”
Thus, the Republicans seem to be in the mood to accuse the Democratic Biden administration of being an accessory to the “murder,” so to speak. Rogers said the administration “should have taken care of this [balloon] before it became a national security threat.”
A source in the Pentagon was quoted in the Financial Times on 5 February as saying that the US military had been able to gather intelligence about the balloon’s capabilities during its flight. The same source said that the craft was part of a fleet of Chinese “spy balloons” operating over five continents.
It goes without saying that the balloon incident has put Beijing in a tight spot, and the US will not let it off the hook until it decides on a date for rescheduling the postponed trip of Blinken to China.
On the other hand, the sensitive information and equipment that the Americans will recover from the debris of the downed balloon will be very useful for the US intelligence community and a major setback for its Chinese counterpart.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly