Diplomatically and domestically, a planned visit to China in the coming days would have been impossible to carry out as what US officials described as a Chinese surveillance balloon floated across the US.
The drama derailed the Biden administration’s attempt to defuse tensions between the United States and China. And it is yet another incident that will fuel fears in Washington and Beijing that the world’s strongest superpower and its rising rival are on the verge of a clash.
China took the unusual step of apologising for the “unintended entry” of a meteorological civilian airship into US airspace.
“The Chinese side will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure,” said Beijing’s Foreign Ministry in a statement.
If Blinken had gone to Beijing, the balloon incident would have overshadowed other key issues in the relationship, such as Taiwan and economic clashes. But, with Republicans outraged over the incident, going ahead with the visit would have given President Joe Biden’s administration the appearance of not being tough enough on China. Domestic politics in both Washington and Beijing play a significant role in defining what is frequently referred to as the world’s most important diplomatic relationship.
The Pentagon says it has been tracking the balloon, which is the size of three buses, for several days but has decided not to shoot it down. It reasoned that because the balloon was flying well above commercial and military airspace, it posed no significant intelligence threat.
This appears to be a reasonable position given that Chinese surveillance satellites with far greater espionage capabilities are known to hover in space over the United States. Officials also stated that this is not the first time the United States has tracked one of Beijing’s balloons during this or previous administrations.
This is far from a DEFCON-1 scenario. However, the balloon provides an excellent glimpse into one of the most destructive factors driving the United States and China toward conflict. In both countries, the politics of the world’s most critical geopolitical relationship are so tense that any incident can spark a new round of recriminations. That is why Blinken was travelling to Beijing.
Washington is already enraged.
Republicans, who have long sought to portray Biden as soft on China despite the fact that he has been at least as tough as ex-President Donald Trump, are outraged by what they see as a violation of US sovereignty.
“Information strongly suggests the (Defense) Department failed to act with urgency in responding to this airspace incursion by a high-altitude surveillance balloon. “No incursion should be ignored, and all incursions should be dealt with appropriately,” said Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
House Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who has already warned China that it cannot prevent him from visiting Taiwan if he so desires, has requested a briefing on the balloon for the Gang of Eight congressional leaders.
“China’s brazen disregard for US sovereignty is a destabilising action that must be addressed, and President Biden cannot remain silent,” the Republican from California said.
It is reasonable to wonder why China sent a surveillance balloon over the US prior to Blinken’s critical visit, given that both sides appear eager to halt the dangerous decline in their relations. It appears far less likely that this is a deliberate provocation, given that China may also want to cool things down. Beijing may have lost control of its balloon. Even so, if a US balloon were to be blown across the Chinese mainland right now, President Xi Jinping’s government would almost certainly exploit the incident for maximum propaganda value.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Friday that it was aware of the incident but cautioned against “deliberate speculation.”
“China is a responsible nation. We conduct ourselves in accordance with international law. We have no intention of violating the airspace of other countries. “We hope that the relevant parties will handle the situation calmly,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning.
Meanwhile, Canada stated on Thursday evening that it is also tracking the balloon’s movements and collaborating with their American counterparts, including the monitoring of a potential second incident.
Going into the Blinken talks, there appeared to be a small window of opportunity to improve relations between the long, tense period preceding Xi’s norm-breaking re-election to a third term in office, which may have contributed to a nationalistic Chinese attitude that exacerbated tensions with the US, and the next American presidential election. (White House races almost always devolve into China bashing, which irritates Beijing.)
However, the atmosphere surrounding the talks had already been tainted by a memo from US Air Force Gen. Michael Minihan, which was first reported by NBC last week, warning that his “gut” tells him to be ready for war with China – and not just in theory, but in two years. That prediction does not correspond to US government assessments of the Pacific geopolitical squabble, nor does it necessarily correspond to events in the region. However, it demonstrated how isolated events can escalate Sino-US tensions.
A Chinese surveillance balloon is now floating over that tense atmosphere. This incident may turn out to be insignificant, but it is yet another minor drama that has not only ruined Blinken’s trip, but will also fan the political flames that elevate hawks in Washington and Beijing who see what they want to see – an inevitable march toward conflict – and increase the likelihood of that dangerous scenario.