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Tensions will linger over a Chinese balloon shot down by the US

Tonand fine The purpose of the Chinese balloon flying over the United States was an unconfirmed brief detente in the world’s most important bilateral relationship. But troubling answers may soon emerge from the Atlantic. us Navy divers have begun salvaging debris from airship shot down by Americans f-22 fighters left South Carolina on 4 February. The goal of the divers is to complete their work within a few days.

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The equipment they found could support U.S. officials’ assertion that the balloon was part of a global fleet of similar craft used to gather intelligence. They say they’ve got plenty of evidence by tracking it across the US. However, China is doubling down on claims that the balloon was monitoring the weather and was blown off course. With Chinese authorities now signaling they want the fragments returned, the two sides appear to be heading for an impasse that could push them deeper into a Cold War-style confrontation.

In some respects, the incident echoes previous bilateral disputes, including China’s 2007 test of an anti-satellite missile (first disclosed by U.S. officials), and its trial of a stealth fighter prototype during a visit to Beijing in a show of strength in 2011 by a Pentagon proposed by the person in charge. Even more dangerous, the leaders of both countries now face strong domestic political pressure to confront each other. Their armed forces are already preparing for a possible conflict over Taiwan.

At first, a relatively quick solution seemed within reach. Before the balloon was shot down, China expressed regret and respected the White House’s decision to postpone US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s scheduled visit to China on February 5. That briefly signaled the possibility that the two sides could manage the crisis and reschedule the visit, which was supposed to cement the detente since Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping met last November.

But China’s rhetoric has since hardened. China’s foreign ministry expressed “strong dissatisfaction” with this, accusing the United States of overreacting and violating international practice. It pledged to safeguard the interests of “relevant Chinese companies” and said it reserved the right to respond.Asked whether China had requested the return of the debris, a spokeswoman said: “The airship does not belong to us. It belongs to China. The Ministry of Defense threatened to “take necessary measures to deal with similar situations”.

In the United States, China hawks have spoken out loudly. Republican leaders questioned why the balloon wasn’t shot down sooner and initially planned to pass a resolution criticizing Mr. Biden’s response, but then turned to a bipartisan condemnation of China’s balloon adventure. “I am committed to working with China because it advances American interests and benefits the world,” Mr. Biden told Congress on Feb. 7. “But make no mistake: As we made clear last week, if China threatens To our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country.”

Some observers have dismissed the incident, noting that China already possesses a formidable array of spy satellites. In China, experts who have listened to the government say the Biden administration is playing up the issue to defeat Republicans ahead of the 2024 presidential election and mobilize public support for a long-term confrontation with China. “If the public doesn’t support you, how can you start a new cold war?” said Jin Canrong of Renmin University in Beijing.

But U.S. officials insist the balloons represent a serious threat. They say China has recently developed a fleet of theirs for espionage, usually in service of the People’s Liberation Army (People’s Liberation Army). Although less sophisticated than satellites, balloons can collect some communications and other data that can only be accessed at lower altitudes, and can often stay for long periods of time using small solar motors. They are also much cheaper.

The balloons have been spotted over countries on five continents, including Europe, and violated the sovereignty of several countries, officials said. On Feb. 6, China acknowledged another balloon it had seen over Latin America in recent days was its own, but insisted it was also a rogue weather-monitoring blimp.

On the same day, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman hosted a briefing on Chinese balloon espionage for some 40 embassies. Washington postThe newspaper said U.S. officials believed some of the operations were conducted in the southern Chinese province of Hainan and gathered military information from countries including India, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

A number of previous sightings have been made public, including one over Japan in June 2020, another over India in January 2022 and a swarm over Taiwan in February last year, whose armed forces and People’s Liberation Army Rocket Army. That month, the United States sent warplanes to intercept an unmanned balloon off Kauai, an island with a missile test site (the balloon was not identified as Chinese at the time).

But U.S. officials have only revealed in recent days that Chinese government surveillance balloons have made brief overflights of the American continent at least four times: three times during the Trump administration and once earlier in the Biden presidency. Some flew over Texas and Florida and were near sensitive military sites, officials said.

Even more worrying for the United States, the intrusions went undetected at the time. Intelligence officials only later used “additional collection methods” to confirm their identities, according to Gen. Glenn Van Heek, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command. “This is a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out,” he said on Feb. 6.

This time, however, U.S. forces spotted Chinese balloons as they approached Alaska. This allows them to ensure that no sensitive activity or communications are exposed nearby, and to monitor it closely and try to assess its ability to collect and transmit data. U.S. officials said one finding undercut China’s claim that balloons appeared to have flown over military bases, including one in Montana that houses an intercontinental ballistic missile.

U.S. Navy divers now hope to glean more evidence from the wreckage of the balloon, which is about 200 feet (61 meters) tall and carries equipment about the size of a regional airliner. Counterintelligence experts have joined the hunt for the debris, which is scattered across about three-quarters of a square mile (195 hectares) in waters less than 50 feet deep.

They are unlikely to find anything labeled People’s Liberation Army. The Chinese balloons are thought to carry a variety of sensors, including some that collect weather data. But the data could be used to help track or guide weapons, including ballistic and hypersonic missiles. And there may be incriminating suites such as electro-optical cameras or sensors that “sniff” the atmosphere for nuclear isotopes. Some of this may even include Western dual-use technology (which China has acquired in large quantities despite US-led efforts to stop it).

There may even be evidence of involvement by Chinese civil society entities. However, this does little to allay US concerns. In recent years, Xi Jinping has ordered the civilian sector to play a bigger role in national defense through what China calls a “military-civil fusion” program. Much of China’s research on high-altitude balloons appears to have been done by the private Chinese Academy of Sciences.Any equipment or data from the organization must be provided to People’s Liberation Army if requested.

What happens next will depend in part on what U.S. officials learn from the debris and what they choose to reveal. It will also depend on China’s response, especially if it follows through on its threat of reciprocal action. As for Mr Blinken’s itinerary, it is unlikely to be rescheduled ahead of the annual meeting of the Chinese National People’s Congress, which begins on March 5. “The big question is what Xi Jinping said to his colleagues,” said Drew Thompson, a former Pentagon official now at the National University of Singapore. “Is he telling them to stop making a fuss about it and move on?”

The United States and its allies have many other problems. If Mr Xi approves the balloon mission, what does that have to do with his latest diplomatic charm offensive? If he didn’t, then how did it continue? If it was an accident, why didn’t China tell the United States in time? If a civilian company is responsible for this, why not find out and provide some details? After the balloon went down, China refused to answer a call from U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. The answer will come slowly.

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