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“China shot itself in the foot” with this “spy” balloon


After the United States shot down a Chinese balloon flying over its territory in early February, Beijing and Washington accuse each other of espionage. Marc Julienne, head of China activities at the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri), deciphers the challenges of this high-risk sequence for Sino-American relations.
Researcher in charge of China activities at the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri), Marc Julienne deciphers the consequences of this series of events for relations between the two largest economic powers.

In what context does this case take place?

Sino-US relations have been extremely tense for several years. These two great powers are part of a strategic rivalry. Tensions are at their highest on many issues: Taiwan, Hong Kong, high technology, support for Russia… And more generally, it is a competition between two opposing political models.

But the G20 summit in Bali in November 2022, where the two heads of state, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, met in person, announced a mutual desire to renew the dialogue. And above all, Xi Jinping’s desire to make his diplomatic return to the international scene after three years of isolation.

It was during this meeting that the visit of Antony Blinken, the American Secretary of State, to Beijing was announced. Even if his visit did not presage significant progress on the various sensitive issues, the dynamic remained encouraging. It was even rumored that Blinken was to meet Xi Jinping in person, which is quite unusual in protocol terms.

And hell…

Yes, a few days before Blinken’s visit, the Chinese balloon affair shattered this incipient rapprochement.

After procrastinating, Joe Biden finally decided to shoot down this balloon identified as a “spy” and three other devices also attributed to China. Could he have let it go, as has been the case in the past?

The case is actually more complex than it seems: the other Chinese balloons that have flown over American territory since 2018, as revealed by the Pentagon, would in fact have passed over Hawaii or Guam, Pacific island territories. The last balloon, meanwhile, crossed the entire continental United States, including strategic nuclear sites in Montana.

The other difference is that the balloon was spotted by individuals and the press, quickly alerted. If the American administration had wanted to manage this incident behind the scenes with Beijing, it was no longer possible.

A public opinion to manage but also a political opposition…

This bilateral diplomatic crisis was indeed coupled with an internal political crisis in the United States. Republicans took this opportunity to accuse Biden of being too weak on China.

However, it must be recognized that Joe Biden, in the midst of this double crisis, reacted with a certain coolness: he waited until the balloon was over the ocean to shoot it down so that the payload ( about a ton) does not cause injuries.

 "Today, many countries are scanning the sky, fearing to be spied on by Chinese balloons"

Did Beijing voluntarily send a signal to the Americans?

It is possible, but I find it difficult to adhere to this hypothesis. Beijing had rather an interest in renewing the dialogue with Washington. Instead, the image of China is further degraded, and other countries are beginning to reveal that they have also been flown over by Chinese balloons (Taiwan, Japan). She shot herself in the foot. Today, many countries are scanning the sky, fearing being spied on by Chinese balloons.

China is also caught out in this crisis: it which uses and abuses the concept of national sovereignty as the basis of its foreign policy, it finds itself violating the sovereignty of its main rival… It has of course recognized and “regretted” the incident, but the damage is done.

One can also imagine that these balloons were launched by a government agency, without coordination with the rest of the government. This would be surprising in a state as centralized as China, but it would explain the delay in reacting by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which seemed uncomfortable.

Unless it is really a meteorological balloon that has gone astray, as China defends?

If so, one wonders why the Chinese authorities did not simply inform the American administration, in order to handle the incident calmly.

And even if it was a weather balloon, China was able to draw a lot of valuable information from this operation: American detection capability, political and military reaction, etc.

 "This event recalls the the rise of China and the confidence it shows from the Taiwan Strait to the United States, as well as in Europe"

Concerning the United States, are they not weakened in the eyes of their allies for not having been able to prevent the overflight of their territory by a spy device?

No, I do not believe that the United States is weakened. In terms of intelligence, there were no major risks (the location of intercontinental missile silos, for example, was known), nor any questioning of American military power and its “nuclear umbrella”. Moreover, the United States maintains a large lead over China, in terms of military capacity, intelligence, financial power or technological innovation. However, this event is a reminder of China’s rise to power and the confidence it shows from the Taiwan Strait to the United States, as well as in Europe. The revelation of the presence of around 30 Chinese clandestine police missions across Europe is one of the latest examples.

For some experts, this case could be the start of a major Chinese spy operation to identify foreign military capabilities, before a possible rise in tensions around Taiwan in the years to come. Do you agree, or do you think that the diplomatic warming can continue once this renewed tension has passed?

In China’s immediate regional environment, balloons may have some complementary advantages with other more capable intelligence capabilities, such as satellites. On the American continent, however, the added value of these balloons seems quite limited in terms of listing military capabilities.

The diplomatic warming, which had only begun and far from being won, now appears to be seriously compromised.

Source: Ifri News