THE US-China controversy over the shooting down of a Chinese weather balloon over US territory continues to feature prominently in world news media and once again shows growing US-China tension. The saga captivated the public provoking fevered debate on social media as the United States described it as a brazen act of espionage and China as a misdirected meteorological mission.
The saga began with a suspected Chinese weather balloon that drifted across the United States and was shot down by the US military off the coast of South Carolina on 04 February 2023, further ratcheting geopolitical tension between the United States and China. According to China, it lost control of a research balloon used mostly for meteorology research over the Pacific. Beijing maintained that its balloon was a civilian research vessel mistakenly blown off course, and that Washington overreacted. But according to Pentagon spokesperson, the balloon was carrying sensitive technology to conduct surveillance over the United States.
Chinese government clearly stated that it was “firmly opposed” to the balloon being shot down, and intended to “take countermeasures against relevant US entities that has undermined our sovereignty and security.” It was not specified what those countermeasures could include or what US entities would be targeted. However, a US balloon was shot down by China in its territory and accused the US of “illegally” flying balloons into its airspace and charged that US high altitude balloons flew over its Xinjiang and Tibet regions. China’s Foreign Ministry said that it was “common” for US balloons to illegally enter the airspace of other nations and that US high-altitude balloons had flown over China without permission more than 10 times since last year. The US has obviously denied the claim. The US has already taken some steps against China for the stray balloon, which it maintains was used for surveillance, issuing sanctions against six Chinese tech and aviation companies and passing a House resolution that formally condemned the Chinese government for deploying the balloon and called it “a brazen violation of United States sovereignty.”
According to reports, Chinese weather balloons have passed through US airspace before at least three times during the Trump Administration and once earlier during the Biden Administration. However, they did not become an international incident as the American general public did not see them, but this time the balloon was sighted by the public causing panic and speculation and compromised the scheduled meeting between the US A and China at the foreign ministers level.
Both China and the US were hoping that the visit of Blinkin to Beijing would consolidate a recent thaw in tension following the November 2022 meeting in Bali between Presidents Biden and President Xi. It is important for both parties to talk in order to tackle important and highly sensitive issues such as Taiwan and China’s support for Russia over the war in Ukraine among others that not only affect peace and security of the world in general. The disruption that this heightened tension and competition is causing to world trade and economic interests is another worrisome matter for the international community.
Following the tension on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visit to Taiwan, the balloon saga clearly demonstrates that China-US competition is here to stay and has the potential to undermine peace and stability particularly in the Asia Pacific region. The United States has substantially expanded its defence budgets incorporating new technologies in its already massive defence capabilities. In the Pacific, Australia at the behest of the US and as member of QUAD is now predominantly focusing on the Pacific Islands, Japan, situated off the eastern coast of China with difficult bilateral relations with China, after almost 80 years is being encouraged to expand its defence budget gradually coursing it to abandon its peaceful orientation.
In the North East of China we see South Korea clearly demonstrated its preference for the United States in case of any confrontation while India has been chosen to be the strategic partner of the US in the Indian Ocean Region continues to heighten tension with China and Pakistan, the all-weather strategic cooperative partner of China. On the other hand, security tension between the United States and its allies and partners, and China also display signs of escalation. All these political moves by the US clearly betray its desire to encircle China to, if not stop, at least to retard the political and economic rise of China.
This balloon saga is another demonstration of the growing fear of China’s phenomenal rise and the imminent possibility of China emerging as the most powerful state in the world economically, politically and strategically. It also manifests the insatiable desire of the US to continuously have an enemy to fight against. When there is none, they ensure one is created, in this case China. Last year the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit heightened the possibility of the dormant war theatre opening in the Straits of Taiwan, destabilizing the entire region and beyond. Now the controversy over a weather balloon has further made the China-US relationship completely unpredictable, unstable and volatile.
In a similar incident 22 years ago when an American spy plane and a Chinese fighter collided 70 miles off the Southern coast of China near the Hainan Island the sides agreed that they would improve their crisis management. The balloon incident has however, exposed the deterioration of communication between Washington and Beijing on crises management. In order to avoid unnecessary controversy and tension it would be proper to agree to standard SOPs.
Any military conflict between the US and China would be disastrous as China is now almost at par with the US and is a far more formidable military adversary than before. It is also a fact that such a confrontation would throw up challenges for countries that are already situated in turbulent region and are desirous of maintaining good and stable relations with both the US and China. It is, therefore, in the interest of humanity that such a devastating conflict is avoided by both sides. Maintenance of peace and security is the collective responsibility of all parties.