China has condemned the US for downing an alleged spy balloon and said it could take “further steps.” This comes after days in which the balloon made waves in the US as it floated over Montana and then ended up over the Carolinas. It was downed off the US coast when it was judged that fallout from the balloon’s electronic array wouldn’t harm people.
“China strongly disapproves of and protests against the US attack on a civilian unmanned airship by force,” the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Sunday in a statement. China claims it told the US this was a civilian airship and that it had strayed off course.
China thinks the US overreacted, but in the US, this decision was already the center of controversy – not about downing it, but due to questions about why it wasn’t shot down sooner. Basically, the question in the US was why it wasn’t stopped earlier, such as over Alaska, where it apparently floated before going over Canada and ending up over Montana.
Much will depend on whether the balloon can be shown to have been a security threat due to containing surveillance devices. China asserts this is some kind of civilian floating airship.
If it turns out that it was a military balloon being used for spying, then that will clearly put the ball in the US court in terms of not only doing the right thing, but encouraging other countries to also confront these balloons.
This is not the first balloon of this kind. They have been spotted in Asia, and according to reports, one of them was currently somewhere over South America.
“On February 3, 2023, in the morning, the National Air Defense System detected an object over 55,000 ft., which entered Colombian airspace in the northern sector of the country,” the Columbian Air Force said Saturday in a statement.
Meanwhile, Canadian Minister of Federal Defense Anita Anand said her country “unequivocally supports” the US government’s decision. That means the US may come out of this with more support and that it may galvanize other countries to do more regarding these kinds of “weather balloons.” That could lead to Japan, South Korea, India and others being empowered.
When it comes to tensions with China, however, it seems that they will increase since the US canceled a trip to China by top diplomat Antony Blinken. It’s unclear why anyone believed that Blinken’s trip was going to lead to any kind of “détente.” This is not China of the 1960s or early 1970s, when US president Richard Nixon and his administration was able to carve out a new policy with an emerging China.
Today, China is a powerhouse, even if it has its own internal economic and demographic challenges, and it is clear that it is on a collision course with others. It can manage this course, but it appears inevitable, even if some foreign-policy commentators continue to think there is a silver lining here.
Who wins? Who loses?
So who might come out of the “spy balloon” story in a better position? China will continue to claim this was just a mistake until the US can show otherwise. There may be dual-use equipment on the payload the balloon was carrying. Retrieving that and analyzing it will be important.
On the other hand, this also gives the US the right to preempt these incidents now, and Beijing may be more cautious in the future. Although it appeared embarrassing for the US as the balloon hovered over several states, and US politicians called for it to be shot down, now that it was shot down, the US can showcase how its warplanes took out the balloon and also display the wreckage.
If the US collects the wreckage, it could show it off, as it has in the past with Houthi ballistic missiles and drones that were collected in places in the Gulf and brought to Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, DC, in 2018. China’s media appeared to not want to highlight the balloon story on Sunday, which means it is waiting to see what comes out of the ocean.
The Biden administration can boast that it has scored a victory over the balloon. According to The Drive news site, the balloon was shot down by an F-22 Raptor, and it was the first known “kill” by this advanced aircraft.
Even though the F-22 was obviously designed to do more than pop giant balloons, this effort to take out an object at a high altitude is important and enabled the US to do an important mission with these aircraft. It provides an opportunity to learn from this experience.
Ultimately, even though China was able to lead some US commentators into a state of hysteria not seen since the age of Sputnik, the US may come out on top in this exchange.