Hot air

Khaled Dawoud , Tuesday 7 Feb 2023

As military experts debate why China might use a balloon to spy on the US, the incident has turned into the usual, partisan fightover who can better protect America, reports Khaled Dawoud


The US Coast Guard have imposed a temporary security zone on waters off South Carolina. It is to last for the duration of the military’s search and recovery of debris from a suspected Chinese spy balloon shot down by a US fighter jet on Saturday. The incident clearly reflects the fragility of ties between the world’s two major powers.

The incident occurred amid deep US political divisions ahead of the presidential elections late next year.The Republicans, who have recently been in control of the House, are using the bizarre incident to accuse the Democratic Biden administration of failing to respond swiftly to the Chinese challenge.

While the US administration has responded negatively to the incident, it took days until the US air force shot down the balloon after it hovered for days over reportedly sensitive US sites in various states. The Pentagon said they did not want the balloon to cause any damage to civilian infrastructure, and waited until it was above waters before bringing it down with a missile shot.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken swiftly adjourned a scheduled trip to China last week, the first in over five years by a top US official, to protest the balloon incident. Yet the US National Security adviser said the visit was not cancelled, and would be rescheduled. Blinken was hoping to build up on the first direct meeting held between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali in November, but the balloon incident made it impossible to carry out the visit amid charges by the Republicans that the current administration was soft on the Chinese, seen as a key challenge to US interests by both parties, sometimes even more than the Russians.

The new Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Representative Michael R Turner, an Ohio Republican, echoed the Republican view arguing that the balloon needed to come down sooner.

He called the shoot-down “sort of like tackling the quarterback after the game is over. The satellite had completed its mission. It should never have been allowed to enter the United States, and it never should have been allowed to complete its mission.”

The White House said on Monday the balloon’s flight over the United States had done nothing to improve already tense relations with China, and its national security spokesperson dismissed Beijing’s contention that the balloon was for meteorological purposes as straining credulity.

Beijing condemned the shooting down of the balloon and urged Washington to show restraint over the episode. White House National Security Spokesperson John Kirby told reporters: “Nobody wants to see conflict here.” 

Blinken’s trip to Beijing would have been the first by a US secretary of state since 2018 as the United States and China have sought to mend ties strained over a range of disagreements, including US attempts to block Chinese access to some cutting-edge technologies.

The United States was able to study the balloon while it was aloft and officials hope to glean valuable intelligence on its operations by retrieving as many components as possible, Kirby said.

China called the shooting down of the balloon an “obvious overreaction”. Vice- Foreign Minister Xie Feng said in remarks to the US Embassy in Beijing posted on the ministry’s website that “China firmly opposes and strongly protests against this.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning said China learned that its balloon had drifted over the United States after being notified by Washington.

“The unintended entry of this airship (into the US) is entirely an isolated, accidental incident. It tests the sincerity the US has in improving and stabilising bilateral relations and the way it handles crises,” she said.

Mao said another balloon, spotted over Latin America, was an unmanned civilian airship on a test flight that “severely deviated and unintendedly entered the space above Latin America because it was affected by the weather and because it has limited self-steering capability.”

While calling for US restraint, China has warned of “serious repercussions” and said it will use all necessary means to deal with “similar situations”, without elaborating. Some policy analysts said they expected any reaction to be finely calibrated to prevent diplomatic ties becoming even worse.

US officials have played down the balloon’s impact on national security, although a successful recovery could potentially give insight into China’s spying capabilities.

Salvage crews are bringing ashore the first remnants of the object. Pentagon officials said the craft was 200 feet tall while the payload underneath, containing monitoring equipment, was about the size of a regional jet. This would explain why the White House was worried about it falling on populated areas. The administration says its watery grave gives US researchers the best chance of recovering it intact and extracting its full intelligence value.

The military said other balloons floated into the US during former Republican president Donald Trump’s administration, but that they were only discovered when President Biden took office – to which Trump accused the current White House of spreading misinformation. Other former top officials said that they didn’t know anything about the flights. “Did the Biden administration invent a time machine?” asked former national security adviser John Bolton.

As soon as the balloon was discovered, Republicans seized the opportunity. Trump sent out a blast on his Truth Social network demanding that the balloon should be shot down immediately. The Republican line has been that Biden was presented with a test of presidential mettle and failed it.  

This, despite the fact that the president has spent billions of dollars waging a proxy war with another nuclear superpower, Russia, in Ukraine, shoring up the US military posture in the Philippines and Japan with an eye on China.

Yet it was the obviousness of the balloon that made many in Washington wonder whether the intelligence community and the civilian leadership in Beijing are communicating with each other.

“Whatever the value of what the Chinese might have obtained,” said retired Admiral Michael Rogers, the former director of the National Security Agency during the Obama and Trump administrations, “what was different here was the visibility. It just has a different feel when it is a physical intrusion on the country.” Once it was detected, what is more, China “handled it badly,” he said.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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