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A Chinese surveillance balloon is shot down

A US air force U-2 pilot looks down at a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon on 3rd February 2023 as it hovers over the country

A US air force U-2 pilot looks down at a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon on 3rd February 2023 as it hovers over the country. Photo: U.S. Department of Defense via Getty Images

On 4th February 2023, an 18,300-metre-high Chinese surveillance balloon was shot down six miles off the coast of South Carolina by a US air force jet, bringing to an end a strange flight that had transfixed the American public and deepened tensions between two superpowers.

President Biden had first been alerted to the balloon on 31st January, when it entered US airspace from Canada over Idaho. The following day it flew over Montana, home to US air force bases where intercontinental ballistic missiles are maintained and operated. In Billings, Montana, freelance photographer Chase Doak saw something in the sky near a base. He stood on his driveway and captured images of what he briefly thought might be a UFO. After the Billings Gazette published the photos the cat was out of the bag. The Pentagon divulged that it had been tracking a Chinese surveillance balloon for several days.

Bonnie S Glaser, director of the Asia Program at thinktank the German Marshall Fund of the United States, says she was surprised to learn that an object the size of three buses had been hovering over North America. “I did not know anything previously about what came to be known as an alleged global Chinese surveillance programme,” she says. On the evening China’s brazen act became public knowledge, Glaser attended a meeting with White House officials. They told her that Joe Biden’s “immediate reaction was to ask whether or not this could be shot down, and that he wanted to shoot it down”, but he was told it would be “too risky to people and property on the ground.”

The story broke hours ahead of US secretary of state Antony Blinken’s planned departure to Beijing for meetings with Chinese officials. “The timing [of the surveillance balloon entering the US] was odd,” says Glaser. “I do not believe it was in Beijing’s interest to sabotage that trip.” She doesn’t know why China launched the balloon but tells me that a lack of coordination within the Chinese system wouldn’t be unusual – “sometimes the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.”

In Beijing, Blinken would have hoped to stabilise the US-China relationship, which according to Glaser was in a “very fragile state” even before the appearance of the mysterious white balloon. The planned series of diplomatic meetings had come out of a discussion between Biden and Chinese premier Xi Jinping at last year’s G20 summit in Indonesia, where they agreed to take steps to improve the frosty relationship between their nations. But Blinken called off the trip, citing a violation of US sovereignty. “The balloon incident derailed the whole process,” says Glaser.

The Chinese claimed that the object was a weather balloon that had strayed into the US by mistake. While Glaser believes the Chinese made a mistake by doubling down on this improbable defence rather than offering a more convincing explanation, she points out that,“No country would say ‘it’s for spying, it’s an espionage platform’”. And while China didn’t quite apologise to the US, it did express “regret” for the balloon having blown off course. “It was as close as you will ever get to an apology from China,” Glaser says.

Glaser claims that China’s efforts to clean up some of the mess it made may have been more substantial than previously reported. She has since learned from sources that Chinese embassy officials were called to the US state department to meet with Blinken and deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman to explain themselves. “Within 24 hours the Chinese apparently provided the US government with a very detailed report that included the manufacturer of the balloon, the balloon’s course and some information about what the balloon was doing,” she says. “The Chinese doing something like that in 24 hours is unprecedented. They made a very sincere effort which was undermined by their claim that it was just a weather balloon.”

This effort, however, didn’t prevent the incident from spiralling into a full-blown diplomatic crisis. On 3rd February, as people in Kansas and Missouri tried to spot the white object floating far above their heads armed with binoculars and telephoto lenses (as well as a few gun sights – some Republican politicians had urged patriotic residents to take a pot shot at it), the scale of the alleged Chinese surveillance programme became clearer. The Pentagon confirmed that another balloon had been spotted flying over Latin America and the North American Aerospace Defense Command said that it was tracking a third balloon’s journey over Canada.

By 13th February three smaller balloons had been shot down over Alaska, Canada and Michigan”

The balloon became the biggest story in the US. News networks aired wall-to-wall coverage of its journey eastwards, the cast of Saturday Night Live mocked it (“Everyone’s being surveilled constantly, but it’s always ‘shoot the balloon’ and never ‘unplug Alexa’,” said Bowen Yang, playing the balloon itself) and Republican politicians chastised the Biden administration for not destroying it immediately. Far-right congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene carried a white helium balloon into Congress to mock the president ahead of his State of the Union address on 7th February.

By then the balloon had already been shot down by an F-22 fighter plane – a move China described as “a clear overreaction and a serious violation of international conventions”. By 13th February, when the Pentagon confirmed that the original Chinese balloon had been used for surveillance, three smaller balloons, suspected also to be Chinese in origin, had been shot down over Alaska, Canada and Michigan. Meanwhile, the debris from the original balloon had been sent to an FBI lab for analysis. “We don’t know whether the FBI report will be released,” says Glaser. “There’s a strong argument for transparency, but there might be reasons why we might not want to release it, because the US government is trying to get beyond this incident and get the US-China relationship back on track.”

A 3rd April 2023 report by NBC News citing senior US officials claimed that the original balloon could be steered remotely and flew over sensitive sites several times. While over US military sites it could send intelligence to Beijing in real time, mostly electronic signals from weapons systems rather than images. It also reportedly contained a self-destruct mechanism that could be activated remotely – it’s unclear whether such a mechanism malfunctioned or China decided not to use it. The White House did not confirm the details of the NBC story.

Glaser believes that the balloon incident has left the US-China relationship at its lowest point since 1972, when Richard Nixon started the process of the normalisation of relations. While the US was outraged by the discovery of what Blinken now describes as a global surveillance effort which “violated the sovereignty of countries across five continents” – according to a US air force intelligence report, one 2019 balloon, undetected by the Trump administration, drifted over Florida while “circumnavigating the globe” – the Chinese were angered by Washington DC’s response. Glaser says that from a Chinese point of view, the American reaction demonstrated how Congress, rather than the White House, was “dominant in determining US policy towards China” and that Biden didn’t stand up for the principles he had discussed with Xi in Indonesia.

The balloon floated onto a long list of issues over which the US and China have been sparring in recent times. These include a trade war, kicked off by Donald Trump in 2018; the alleged security threats posed by Chinese-owned tech companies such as Huawei and TikTok; Xi’s pledge of “friendship without limits” with Vladimir Putin; the arbitrary detention of Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region, described by the US as ‘genocide’; and, looming over all the rest, the mounting tensions over Taiwan. Glaser believes that these are all distinct challenges that should be handled separately, that the US doesn’t have the capacity to address every issue with China, and that it must establish clear priorities.

For now, she believes both countries must move beyond a peculiar and damaging chapter in their relationship. “There were mistakes made, in my view, on both sides,” says Glaser, pointing out that the US may have missed an opportunity to defuse the situation when the Chinese provided them with a report on the balloon. “Both sides did not handle this incident well.”

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #50 of Delayed Gratification

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