The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The balloon saga strains an already fraught U.S.-China relationship

7 min

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The story carries an element of farce. According to some experts, we are in the age of a new Cold War. The United States maintains a ring of steel — military bases, aircraft carriers, frequent maritime exercises — around much of what China believes are its exclusive territorial waters. China is developing some of the world’s most sophisticated cyberespionage technologies. Technological competition between the two powers is accelerating. Both countries have deployed myriad assets in the skies, in space and in the sea to keep tabs on the other.

And yet, in arguably one of the most dramatic incidents in years involving the United States and China, it was an unmanned balloon, bobbing along on a meandering stratospheric path across the U.S. mainland, that set the proverbial cat among the pigeons. On Saturday, a few days after U.S. officials announced the presence of the Chinese balloon, estimated to be the size of three buses, in American airspace — and a week after U.S. authorities had started tracking the balloon as it transited over an Alaskan archipelago — an F-22 Raptor fighter jet fired a single missile at the balloon as it floated off the South Carolina coast.

In images you have probably already seen, the Chinese airship, which U.S. authorities say they believe was a military intelligence asset, crumples in the air. Its apparent payload, an array of suspected surveillance equipment, dropped into the ocean. At the time of writing, it was not confirmed whether the pod affixed to the balloon had been recovered by U.S. authorities.

What the Chinese controllers of the balloon achieved during its journey is less clear. According to U.S. officials who spoke to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, it’s not clear how much more sensitive information the balloon could have gleaned than Chinese satellites in low orbit. Balloons can linger over locations, such as the missile field in Montana where it was spotted, but are not stationary and are subject to the vagaries of the winds. U.S. officials estimate that the Chinese have dispatched some 20 to 30 balloons on missions over the past decade, five of which have circumnavigated the globe. There are two other balloons apparently in motion, including one that recently transited over a stretch of Latin America.

Timeline: A suspected Chinese spy balloon’s eight-day journey

The days of intrigue over the balloon generated no shortage of partisan hot air. Republican lawmakers opportunistically lambasted President Biden for his supposed weakness on China. One even called for his resignation. Some posted pictures of themselves with large machine guns or sniper rifles, scanning the skies for a balloon some 60,000 feet in air that would be well out of range of their weaponry. In a reflection of the hyperbole coming from the right-wing establishment, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted that “if Biden wouldn’t even shoot down a balloon, he isn’t going to do jack if China takes territory from India or Japan or invades Taiwan.”

Over the weekend, the Pentagon somewhat burst the right’s bubble. It said at least three balloons “briefly transited the continental United States” during the Trump administration, none of which were shot down. Once this most recent balloon reached the North American landmass, Pentagon officials told my colleagues that there was no viable way to bring it down without endangering people on the ground. That’s why the Biden administration waited until it neared the Atlantic Ocean before it took action, minimizing potential harm to civilians while maximizing the chances the Chinese technology in the pod could be secured intact.

The fallout beyond Washington is arguably of more consequence. On Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was slated to visit China on a trip that was the culmination of months of delicate back-channeling and dialogue. Locked in a rolling trade war and an increasingly tense standoff over Taiwan, the two sides were trying to ease the pressures in a spiraling relationship. But the balloon incident forced Blinken’s hand and led to the State Department delaying his trip.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said China’s “clear violation of U.S. sovereignty” meant it was “not appropriate” for Blinken to visit at this time. “The incident has soured the atmosphere and hardened positions and there’s no guarantee the two sides can successfully resurrect the ‘Bali’ momentum,” Daniel Russel, a vice president at the Asia Society and a former U.S. diplomat, told my colleagues, referring to the meeting between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Indonesia in November.

In a world of drones and satellites, why use a spy balloon anyway?

The episode may be more damaging to China’s leadership than that of the United States. Beijing has tried this year to show a friendlier face to the world, seeking to dispel mounting fears and resentment over China’s role on the world stage. At the World Economic Forum last month, Chinese Vice Premier Liu He insisted that his nation was open to the world and would continue its process of liberalization and opening up even further.

Blinken’s mission to China could have heralded a turning of the page at a fraught moment. Instead, the events of the past week only underscored the dire state of tensions. “The setback is an embarrassment for ... Xi, who began his norm-defying third term in office with a show of diplomatic friendliness that experts interpreted as a pragmatic effort to ease tensions with Western nations, as he deals with internal discontent over a slowing economy and a huge wave of coronavirus infections,” wrote my colleague Christian Shepherd.

In public, Chinese officials have cast the balloon as a “civilian airship” and decried the U.S. action to take it down. But analysts believe the incident has probably taken Xi and his cadre by surprise. “From the perspective of China’s top leadership, they wouldn’t have wanted to disrupt the process of easing relations with the United States because this year is a very important year for China to revive the economy,” Zhao Minghao, professor at the Institute of International Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University, told my colleague Lily Kuo. “There is no point in China sabotaging the process.”

That’s a view shared by some within the Biden administration. “They were caught off guard and didn’t have a story yet,” a U.S. official told the Financial Times. “We made clear that we knew exactly what was going on and needed rapid actions. … It took them much longer than necessary to get back to us.”

How do stratospheric balloons work? Here’s a visual guide.

If Xi and the top leadership weren’t aware of the dispatch of the balloon, it raises some troubling questions. Are factions within the Communist Party power structure trying to undermine the president? “Intelligence analysts are considering the possibility that the Chinese military or hard-line elements within the leadership deliberately sought to sabotage the Blinken visit, the chief goal of which was to explore strategic stability measures and other guardrails that could limit the likelihood of unintended escalation over Taiwan or other issues of potential conflict,” Ignatius wrote.

What happens next, though, may be to the Biden administration’s advantage, explained Neysun Mahboubi, a research scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Contemporary China, to my colleagues. “The most interesting question now is whether this mistake opens up any leverage for the U.S. in renegotiating the visit, and if the U.S. is adept enough to use that leverage to good effect,” he said.