April 19. 2024. 9:19

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The truth behind the Chinese balloon may remain cloudy but the fallout is clear

Three weeks after a Chinese balloon was sighted over the United States and almost a fortnight after it was shot down, Joe Biden said on Thursday that he wanted to talk to Xi Jinping about it.

“I expect to be speaking with President Xi. I hope we are going to get to the bottom of this, but I make no apologies for taking down that balloon,” he said.

Since the 60m Chinese balloon floated across North America from Alaska to the Atlantic Ocean off South Carolina, the US has shot down three other objects above its airspace, although Biden said none of them had anything to do with China. US secretary of state Antony Blinken cancelled a planned visit to Beijing, and the US and China imposed sanctions on a number of one another’s companies.

What neither side has done is to offer a clear explanation, backed with evidence, of what exactly the Chinese balloon was doing above US airspace, or even who sent it on its mission. And as both sides signal that they want to draw a line under the incident, we may never know the full story.

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China has maintained from the start that the balloon was a civilian airship that was gathering meteorological data and was blown off course by strong westerly winds because it had limited steering capacity.

For Beijing, shooting down the balloon was an overreaction that hyped up tensions and made it more difficult to contain the diplomatic fallout

“As a responsible country, China strictly adheres to international law, respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, and has no intention of violating the territory and airspace of any sovereign country. The incursion of a Chinese civilian unmanned airship into US airspace was an accident caused by force majeure, which did not pose any threat to the security of the US or its people,” the foreign affairs committee of China’s National People’s Congress said on Thursday.

In an unusual step, China expressed regret for the incursion at the time and Beijing said it briefed the US and other governments immediately, urging Washington to handle the incident in a “calm, professional and restrained” way. For Beijing, shooting down the balloon was an overreaction that hyped up tensions and made it more difficult to contain the diplomatic fallout.

At the beginning, the Chinese response was muted and the story barely made the news in China apart from humorous or sarcastic digs at American hysteria over it. Blinken’s visit, which was due to take place on February 4th, had never been formally announced in Beijing so its cancellation was easily ignored or played down.

But as the balloon refused to go away as a political controversy in the US, China’s account remained sketchy, offering no details of the civilian entity or company that owned the airship. Washington imposed sanctions on six Chinese companies it said were involved in a Chinese balloon surveillance programme, although it did not accuse any of the firms of being connected with the balloon that was shot down.

The US commerce department said that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was using high-altitude balloons for intelligence and reconnaissance activities. The US military uses balloons too and they are widely used for civilian purposes for everything from weather forecasting to enhancing mobile connectivity in disaster zones.

How high altitude balloons are taking spying to new heights

Listen | 28:37
Last night the US president said he would make "no apologies" for taking down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the east coast of America earlier this month. Joe Biden told reporters the country is developing “sharper rules” to track, monitor and potentially shoot down unknown aerial objects. But many questions remain about the massive surveillance device, and three other smaller balloons, shot down over the US and Canada. Washington Correspondent, Martin Wall, brings us up to date about what we know so far, as well as explaining how official UFO sightings by the US military have been conflated with the international incident. China Correspondent, Denis Staunton, has the reaction from Beijing and analyses how the row might blow over, as the US and China rescue their stuttering reconciliation. Presented by Aideen Finnegan.

Although they fly at altitudes up to 30,000m, high-altitude balloons can go under the radar, partly because they move so slowly, at no more than the speed of the wind. This also gives them an advantage over satellites, which move so fast that their window for surveillance of what is below is much shorter than that of a slow-moving balloon.

Beijing may be telling the truth when it says the balloon the US shot down was collecting meteorological data but it could have served a dual purpose. And China’s policy of “military-civil fusion”, which has been promoted by Xi in recent years, has made distinguishing the civilian from the military more difficult than ever.

The strategy aims to advance China’s ambition to become an economic, technological and military superpower by promoting collaboration and sharing of resources, particularly in technology, between the civilian and military spheres. Collaboration covers everything from big data to logistics, and it has allowed the Chinese military to take advantage of technological advances in the private sector while broadening its procurement base.

Policymakers in Washington are outraged but China is doing little more than the US has been doing since before President Dwight D Eisenhower warned in 1961 against the establishment of a “military-industrial complex”. And from Beijing, American hyperventilating over spy balloons looks like hypocrisy at best and a deliberate attempt to damage bilateral relations at worst.

China’s foreign ministry said this week that the US had flown 10 unauthorised balloons over Chinese airspace since the start of 2022 but that Beijing had responded in a measured way. The Biden administration denied the accusation and intelligence experts raised logistical questions about it.

[ Ukraine tensions and Chinese balloons to dominate Munich security conference ]

With prevailing winds blowing from the west, a balloon launched in the US would have to almost circumnavigate the globe before floating into Chinese airspace. So if the US did indeed fly a balloon into China, it would probably have been launched from somewhere in Asia.

What nobody doubts is the second claim that the foreign ministry made, that the US conducts reconnaissance missions close to the Chinese coast on a more-than-weekly basis. Foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the US sent 657 warships and aircraft to conduct close-in reconnaissance of China last year.

He also pointed out that the US routinely violates the sovereignty and interests of other countries, including its allies, with indiscriminate technological surveillance.

“The United States is the world’s largest espionage habitual criminal and surveillance empire,” he said.

Before the balloon appeared above Montana, Washington and Beijing were engaged in a tentative re-engagement after a number of years of minimal contact between the two capitals. A meeting between Biden and Xi in Bali last November saw both leaders agree to try to put a floor under the competition between their countries so that it did not accidentally turn into a confrontation.

Blinken’s planned visit to Beijing this month was part of this exercise, which both sides made clear was unlikely to see a meeting of minds on the biggest areas of disagreement. These include Taiwan, human rights, and Washington’s determination to slow China’s technological progress by banning the export of sophisticated microchips.

China is an important economic partner for Moscow and Xi is expected to visit Vladimir Putin there in the coming weeks

China and the US are also at odds over Ukraine, with Beijing refusing to criticise Russia and blaming Washington and Nato for provoking the war. China has not offered military support to Russia and has avoided breaching western sanctions but it is an important economic partner for Moscow and Xi is expected to visit Vladimir Putin there in the coming weeks.

Xi hosted Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, in Beijing this week and they stressed the importance of their “close strategic relationship” despite China’s newfound friendship with Gulf states including Saudi Arabia. China has been reaching out to some of Washington’s allies too and last year’s change of government in Canberra has seen a dramatic improvement in relations with Australia.

European leaders have also been engaging with Xi, and French president Emmanuel Macron is expected to visit Beijing in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, business people in the US as well as Europe are piling back into China as its vast market reopens.

What diplomats hoped for from the Blinken meeting was the restoration of the kind of official contacts, including between the two militaries, that could have prevented the balloon incident from becoming such a drama. By the end of this week, both sides were signalling that they were ready to talk to one another.

The Munich Security Conference this weekend offers an opportunity for engagement, with Blinken and China’s top diplomat Wang Yi both due to attend. Their problem is that mutual trust, already in short supply, has been further diminished by the balloon and the mystery that continues to surround it.