Europef all Potentially upending the US secretary of state’s first visit to China since 2018, few bets would be on a Chinese balloon flight over Montana. On Feb. 2, the Pentagon revealed it was tracking the high-altitude inflatable boat, saying it was for intelligence purposes. The next day, US officials said the White House would postpone Antony Blinken’s visit to Beijing, which was scheduled to start on February 5.
The two sides had been hoping the visit would cement tensions that had recently eased after Presidents Biden and Xi met in Bali in November. Mr. Blinken’s itinerary may be rescheduled. For now, though, the White House’s biggest concern is that the balloon incident will hijack the talks, which must also address highly sensitive issues such as Taiwan and China’s support for Russia in the Ukraine war.
The decision was announced hours before Mr Blinken was due to leave Washington, and China issued an unusually swift and contrite statement shortly after that a Chinese “civilian airship” mainly used for weather research had been blown away route. “China regrets that the airship accidentally entered U.S. airspace. force majeure,” adding that China will continue to communicate with U.S. authorities and “properly handle this contingency.”
Pentagon press secretary Brigadier General Patrick Ryder disputed China’s assertion that the balloon is a weather device. “The truth is, we know it’s a surveillance balloon,” he said. “I can’t be more specific.” He added that the balloon violated U.S. airspace and international law, which U.S. authorities have communicated to the Chinese government at multiple levels.
China’s explanation also failed to convince critics in Congress. Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas explicitly called for the trip to be canceled. Kevin McCarthy, the new Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, has requested an intelligence briefing to a “Gang of Eight” group of lawmakers that includes the top Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, as well as the heads of the House Intelligence Committees.
The anger isn’t limited to Republicans, either. Leaders of the House’s newly formed bipartisan China Select Committee issued a statement calling the balloon invasion a violation of U.S. sovereignty and citing it as evidence that China’s latest diplomatic overtures do not represent a substantive change in policy. “The Chinese Communist Party should not have access to U.S. airspace on demand,” the committee’s Republican chairman, Mike Gallagher, and his Democratic leader, Raja Krishnamurthy, said in a statement.
Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump tweeted “Shoot down the balloon!” on his Truth social media platform. The Pentagon said on Feb. 2 that it had been keeping an eye on the balloon, but military commanders advised Mr. Biden not to shoot it down because of concerns that falling debris could harm civilians on the ground. A U.S. official told reporters that U.S. authorities “secured” the balloon when it entered U.S. airspace a few days ago and observed it with a manned military aircraft.
The incident made all too clear that the political climate in Washington has become so hostile to China that Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi will struggle to follow through on their pledge to find global concerns, such as climate change, on which they can work together. Xi also faces an uphill battle trying to appease Western businesses, alarmed by his recent policies and tensions in Taiwan, and persuade them to keep doing business with China.
Even less clear is what the Chinese balloon (or airship) was designed to do and how it ended up floating into U.S. airspace. It appeared high above Montana this week and was greeted with surprise by ground-based observers. Some observers initially thought it was a daytime star. It’s hard for analysts to understand what it’s doing there. In an era when the sky is full of satellites providing highly detailed images of the Earth’s surface, China appears to be reverting to the shoddy intelligence-gathering techniques first used by the French in the 18th century and largely replaced by new technologies since the end of the Cold War.
Some point out that balloons provide a higher quality of intelligence than satellites and at a much lower cost, which is much cheaper to launch and much easier to recover. They operate at an altitude of 24,000-37,000 meters, much higher than commercial aircraft, but much closer to the ground than low-Earth orbit satellites, which are 160-2,000 kilometers high. They can wander around areas of interest instead of rushing by.
According to the Pentagon, the plane took several days from China, passing through the Aleutian Islands near Alaska and then through northwestern Canada. It was pointed out that Montana may have a particular interest in China. It maintains one of three Air Force bases near Great Falls that operate and maintain Minuteman III ICBMs. Or, some wonder, the main purpose of the balloon is not to snoop with a camera, but to absorb digital data. Some communication systems use short-range high frequencies that can be absorbed by the atmosphere, which may be easier to monitor from a balloon.
Still, it’s puzzling. Most experts agree with the assessment of U.S. defense officials that the intelligence-gathering benefits of using balloons are very limited. China is also unlikely to imagine it could go undetected. After all, this is visible to the naked eye. And China itself tends to react violently when the U.S. conducts aerial surveillance near its territory, so it can hardly feign surprise at U.S. anger over invading balloons.
Some thought China was trying to show off a new intelligence-gathering capability and embarrass the U.S. government, which only responded publicly after the balloon arrived in Montana. It would be a bonus if the balloon picked up any useful intel. Weather equipment can collect data useful for military purposes, including guiding ballistic missiles.
Others see the timing of this deliberate provocation as odd, given Xi’s apparent desire to stabilize relations with the US and focus on tackling covid-19 and a domestic economic slowdown. They cited the uncharacteristic speed and signs of contrition in China’s statement that it may have been a real mistake. Either way, the balloon adds an unexpected new thrill to an already strained relationship. ■