Column | US, China tension over balloons defuses for now

A balloon flies in the sky over Billings, Montana, U.S. February 1, 2023 in this picture obtained from social media. Photo: Chase Doak/via REUTERS

“Trust, but verify” is an accepted principle in international relations and even the friendliest of nations keep an eye on each other even when they pursue good will and cooperation. Spying has been in existence over the centuries and the technological revolution has made it intense, difficult to detect and occasionally reason for conflict. But nations resort to it in all its forms, ranging from personal contacts to satellite imagery. One wonders why balloons are still used for surveillance when a satellite can read the calorie content on a Coca-Cola can. The truth is that nations do not want to take any chance when it comes to getting to know friends and foes. An unofficial code of conduct exists to tolerate surveillance, protest blatant intrusions and to contain the fallout.

Inopportune event

The shooting down of a Chinese balloon over US territorial waters on February 4, 2023 may not have spun into a major controversy in normal times, but it happened at a time when US-China relations were at its lowest ebb in many years. President Biden was so preoccupied with Russia that he had no time to devise a credible policy towards China, be it as an adversary, a rival or a partner. The shooting itself took place after due deliberations and only after making sure that there would be no damage to people or places on land or sea. The spot selected for the debris to fall was also chosen to make easy recovery of the equipment on board. But the shooting was considered an overreaction on the part of the US as there was no evidence of the balloon having gathered any sensitive information, though it flew over some nuclear installations in the region, including Alaska and Western Canada.

The event assumed some importance when US Secretary of State Blinken postponed an official visit to China, which was his first since 2018. The visit was specifically intended to improve relations between the US and China and the postponement was a setback. China characterized the US action as unacceptable and irresponsible and complained that the US balloons had crossed into Chinese territory and no such action was taken. China claimed that it was a weather balloon, which had gone astray, while the US said that it was a surveillance balloon, meant to fly over 40 countries.

US, China flag
US and Chinese flags are seen through broken glass in this illustration taken, January 30, 2023. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

Not a benign balloon

Balloons have been in use since the 18th century, but the technological capabilities of the balloons today are mind-boggling. The Chinese balloon was cruising at an altitude of 60,000 feet, which only Concorde can climb and it had rudders and propellers. It had also the capacity to remain in the air for long periods of time. It was difficult to detect its flight path. The debris of the balloon was dispersed over 2.5 square kilometers. The intention of the flight of the balloon was also to demonstrate technological and physical prowess.

Cool down after 'overreaction'

The shooting incident started a war of words between China and the US. China demanded return of the craft and the rhetoric sounded as though the second Cold War had begun. After a week, however, both sides began stepping back to avoid a conflict. The US began to wonder whether it had overreacted to a totally benign balloon and the rhetoric was toned down. Beijing too lowered the pitch of the accusations, particularly since China’s support of Russia and NATO had not gone well with the politicians in the US. A US spokesman openly said that there was no possibility of a conflict with China on account of the balloon.

The battle of the balloons did not flare up because it was realized that the incident was not serious enough to make a bad situation worse. Moreover, China was not alone in deploying spy balloons over the skies of other nations. The world heaved a collective sigh of relief when word came that the Foreign Ministers of the US and China might meet in Munich on the sidelines of a security conference to put the battle of the balloons behind them.  

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