Secretary of State Blinken suspends Xi meeting over Chinese spy balloon

If you want an idea of ​​how fraught US-China relations are, consider this: A balloon derailed a diplomatic summit and forced the latest standoff between Washington and Beijing.

Well, not just any balloon — a surveillance balloon belonging to the People’s Republic of China that had previously flown through US airspace. shot down by an F-22 fighter jet off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday, which fired a single missile to take it out.

The lowering of the balloon partly ended a day-long saga in which Secretary of State Anthony Blinken canceled a planned meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping; a cameo by another suspected spy balloon near Costa Rica; domestic political complaints about when and where to drop the balloons; And several questions about the Chinese government’s motivations and timing.

The Chinese government condemned the launch of the balloon, calling it an “overreaction” – although Chinese officials maintained the aircraft was “mainly civilian” and studying the weather. China said the wind blew up the balloon, which sounds like something that happens to balloons, except, it must have been very specific wind that happened to carry the balloon over some “sensitive site,” as the Pentagon put it. . Specifically, the balloon was spotted in Montana, which is home to one of three nuclear missile silo fields. The Pentagon also said the balloon was “operational.”

That is why the United States clearly rejected China’s explanation of innocence and called the presence of balloons in the US airspace “a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law, and it is unacceptable that this happened.”

The U.S. also canceled the highly anticipated meeting between Blinken and Xi in Beijing, underscoring how fragile relations between Beijing and Washington are at the moment. There have been spy balloons before, and there are more covert ways of surveillance and spying – which everyone, including the United States, is doing. But this slow-moving setback has sidelined even the most basic efforts at dialogue. Add to that the US political fiasco over the Biden administration’s China policy, and of course, this balloon will blow things up.

The US brought down that spy balloon and is now trying to figure out what it is

On January 28, US officials first detected the balloon in US airspace near the Aleutian Islands in the Pacific Ocean’s Alaskan archipelago. The balloon traveled to Canada via Alaska and then returned via Idaho last week. The balloon flew at an altitude of about 60,000 feet. (For reference, planes fly at about 35,000 feet.) The surveillance equipment alone is about the size of two to three school buses, U.S. officials said, with the balloon portion larger.

The Pentagon said it was not a military or physical threat, and a senior defense official said at a briefing Thursday that, based on what the U.S. could tell, “it doesn’t add significant value over and above what the PRC is likely capable of doing. In low Earth orbit.” Collect things like satellites” – that is, Beijing is not really getting the good stuff. The US has taken additional steps to lock down information.

The Pentagon initially denied shooting down the balloon as it flew over the United States because of concerns that the debris would cause widespread damage. But, according to a senior defense official, President Joe Biden authorized the military to shoot it down once it no longer poses a threat to civilians. This happened after the balloon floated in the Atlantic Ocean near South Carolina. According to Pentagon officials, the balloon landed in water about 50 feet deep, six miles off the US coast. The U.S. Navy, along with other agencies, is trying to recover the wreckage in an area the Pentagon estimates is the same 1,500 meters by 1,500 meters — or 15 football fields 15 football fields. Teams are attempting to recover the wreckage to test the craft to see what they can learn.

“We continue to focus on the safe implementation of a recovery during an effective recovery, so that we can exploit it, and to provide as much information as possible to the media, the public, Congress, anyone who has an interest in us. Really finding out,” Gen. Glenn VanHerk. , commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and the US Northern Command, said in a briefing on Monday.

The US’s strong response to the balloon and China’s possible confusion show how unstable the current relationship between these two countries is. Neither Washington nor Beijing have a clear idea of ​​how to communicate or defuse conflict, and neither do they have many channels to practice regularly. This ambiguity makes a miscalculation or an increase more likely. As China seeks to build its power abroad, and the United States seeks to control or contain it, there will be the potential for close calls or misunderstandings. And every miscommunication may not be so little. It was a slow-moving balloon, after all, not to mention, a close collision with military aircraft.

Blinken’s trip to Beijing was supposed to help fix just that. The purpose of his visit was to stabilize relations and close November The summit between Biden and Xi in Bali offered at least a glimmer of hope that the two powers want to find ways to engage. A senior State Department official said at a Friday briefing that there was no timeline for rescheduling Blinken’s trip, but the US felt that if Blinken went to Beijing now, “it would significantly narrow the agenda that we would be able to address.” In other words, they were just talking about spy balloons. Like everyone else.

The polarized US domestic climate is also complicating it. Biden, like his predecessor Donald Trump, has maintained a rather hawkish policy on China, including keeping Trump’s tariffs in place; preventing the sale of semiconductor technology and forcing allies and partners to do the same; And continue to strongly support Taiwan.

Still, Republicans, in particular, have accused the Biden administration of being insufficiently tough on China. Many leaders point to the balloon incident as an example of the administration’s failure. “China’s blatant disregard for US sovereignty is a destabilizing move that must be addressed and President Biden cannot afford to remain silent,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) tweeted.

Even after the administration ordered the balloon removed, Republicans criticized Biden for allowing the balloon to enter US skies in the first place and not bringing the craft down quickly enough. House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-MN) said, “It’s a shame, but surprising given his soft-on-China track record, that Biden has failed to take decisive action to send a strong message to our adversaries around the world”.

This growing cynicism toward China is clouding U.S. realities and foreign policy responses. As long as the United States sees China as a threat — and a direct threat to the United States — this balloon into a spiraling international crisis.

There are legitimate questions about what China did with this spy balloon. There may be some implications for US security, but it’s not really clear at this point what, if any, they are. All countries spy on each other, and the US and China are no exception, and they have a myriad of tactics and techniques to do so, many of which are less intrusive and more precise than a giant balloon. NORAD’s General VanHark told reporters that previous intrusions by Chinese balloons that occurred during the Trump administration were not detected until after intelligence analysis, calling it a “domain awareness gap.”

There are legitimate security concerns about China’s surveillance tactics and what it’s doing with the data it collects — but frankly, the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t need a balloon for that, just your cellphone. And it is still unclear why China would allow the balloon to reach the US on the eve of this meeting with Blinken. Some possible theories include bureaucratic slip-ups or miscommunications, which could reveal mismanagement within the Chinese government and raise questions about Xi’s competence. Signs of such dysfunction are equally worrisome, as it increases the likelihood of more serious miscalculations that could lead to more serious collisions.

None of this bodes well for easing tensions between the US and China, and this incident shows that, right now, Washington and Beijing are fighting mightily to make these tensions more predictable and manageable.

Update, February 6, 5:00 pm ET: This story, originally published on February 3, has been updated to include additional details about the balloon being shot down and its recovery.