Last week, the world assumed that the United States and China were on the way to mending ties, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reportedly set to visit China on February 5. But the appearance of a Chinese spy balloon over the skies of Montana in the northwestern United States dashed that possibility, at least for the immediate future.
The Biden administration called off the diplomatic mission on February 4, a day before it was reportedly supposed to begin, saying “he’d only go when the time is right.”
This could possibly derail what little progress that China-U.S. relations were making following the meetings between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping and between then-Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Blinken in Bali in November at the G-20 Summit.
On the other hand, this could serve as an opportunity for open, pragmatic talks between the two sides and the recognition of the need for establishing certain standard operating procedures (SOPs) that will avoid destabilizing activities, which can spiral out of control. This is assuming that it is the lack of SOPs and agreements that has led China to engage in activities that accentuate the already deteriorating ties between the two sides. There is an important need to institute pragmatic measures that will moderate the behavior of states and lead to openness and transparency while identifying channels of communication to avoid crises from getting out of hand.
In this particular incident, the Pentagon said last week that it had detected a Chinese surveillance balloon “hovering over the northwestern United States.” Commenting on the Chinese surveillance balloon sighting, Blinken said, “China’s decision to fly a surveillance balloon over the continental United States is both unacceptable and irresponsible. That’s what this is about. It’s a violation of our sovereignty. It’s a violation of international law.”
There are concerns about the many militarily sensitive sites that Montana hosts. Senator Steve Daines (Republican) of Montana sent a letter to Defense Secretary Llyod Austin stating that this incident “creates significant concern that Malmstrom Air Force Base and the United States’ intercontinental ballistic missile fields are the target of this intelligence gathering mission. … It is vital to establish the flight path of this balloon, any compromised US national security assets, and all telecom or IT infrastructure on the ground within the US that this spy balloon was utilizing.”
Meanwhile, a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement stated that the balloon was “a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes” and that “the Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure. The Chinese side will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure.”
This statement is significantly different in tone from an earlier one, in which the spokesperson responded that “China is a responsible country and we always act in accordance with international law. We have no intention to violate the territory or airspace of any sovereign country. As I said, we are gathering and verifying the facts. We hope both sides can handle the matter together in a cool-headed and prudent manner.”
In the same press briefing, the spokesperson was very dismissive of Blinken’s reported upcoming visit to China. Although the visit had been reported widely in U.S. media, citing anonymous knowledgeable sources, officially neither China and the United States had confirmed it was happening.
It is also notable that until the U.S. media started covering the Chinese spy balloon, China had not mentioned a balloon veering off course in an unintended direction. It’s unclear if the Chinese had informed the U.S. government about the balloon before the news started breaking.
In a separate press briefing after the announcement of the postponement of Blinken’s visit, the Chinese spokesperson said, “Maintaining contact and communication at all levels is an important common understanding reached by the Chinese and US presidents at their meeting in Bali. One of the tasks of the diplomatic teams on both sides is to properly manage bilateral relations, particularly to manage some unexpected situations in a cool-headed and prudent manner.”
A U.S. F-22 fighter jet shot down the Chinese balloon off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday, a week after it was discovered in U.S. airspace. China is, of course, furious about the shoot down. The Chinese Foreign Ministry reportedly conveyed its “strong dissatisfaction and protest” at the U.S. shooting down the balloon, calling it “a blatant provocation.” And this was after China’s earlier acknowledgement that the balloon was in U.S. airspace.
The balloon situation is not an isolated incident. China has been testing the limits of its technologies as well as putting its bilateral relationship with the United States through various tests. For example, China’s behavior in the outer space domain has been disturbing and contributes to irresponsible and destabilizing activities. Repeated uncontrolled re-entry of Chinese rockets into Earth’s atmosphere is one problem. One recent incident occurred in April 2021 when the debris from a Chinese rocket re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and fell into the Indian Ocean.
This was not the first time either. In 2018, China’s space laboratory, Tiangong-1,was on a similar uncontrolled re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. China’s space agency had lost control over the spacecraft. It is odd that China’s space program has matured to the level of building its own space station or landing on South Pole-Aitken Basin on the far side of the Moon, returning rocks from the Moon, and embarking on a mission to Mars, but China does not act in a responsible manner to bring down its debris or other spacecraft in a controlled manner.
When the 2018 event took place, Ted J. Muelhaupt, principal director of Aerospace’s Center for Orbital and Re-entry Debris Studies said, “It’s not a trivial thing to design something for a deliberate re-entry, but it’s nevertheless something that the world as a whole has moved to because we needed to.” These are the kind of steps that states, and other space actors are taking in order to ensure the sustainability of life in space and on Earth, and for the safety of people and property. But China, despite being one of the world’s major space powers, appears to have utter disregard for such serious concerns.
These incidents are demonstrative of China’s disregard for the safety and security of all people. Clearly, these incidents have happened not because China lacks the wherewithal to avoid such mishaps. Given the intensifying China-U.S. rivalry as well as China’s problematic relations with other Indo-Pacific powers, such instances are likely to grow in the coming years. Unless existing regulatory measures or at the very least certain standard operating procedures (SOPs) are established, these incidents may become normalized, making already tense relations between states even trickier. Such SOPs need to be developed at the great power level, to start with.