Bursting Beijing’s balloon: what’s behind US response?

Incident triggered cancellation of US Secretary of State’s visit to China

A big white balloon is pictured flying above Charlotte, North Carolina
The balloon was shot down by a US fighter jet on 4 February
(Image credit: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

On Saturday afternoon, six miles off the coast of South Carolina, a US F-22 fighter jet fired a Sidewinder air-to-air missile that blew a massive Chinese balloon out of the sky.

China’s Foreign Ministry immediately registered “strong discontent and protest” over the downing of what it insisted was a weather research aircraft that had flown over the US “totally accidentally”.

The missile strike brought an “explosive end to a drama that put a diplomatic crisis between the world’s two great powers onto television screens in real time”, said The New York Times.

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The balloon’s “highly visible” flight over US sites including over a nuclear missile silo complex in Montana triggered the last-minute cancellation of a visit to China by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “undermining an attempt by Beijing to mend its most important bilateral relationship”, said The Washington Post.

Amid a flurry of claims and counterclaims by the two superpowers, one key question remains unanswered: why was China flying what Washington claims was a surveillance balloon over the US? According to the Pentagon, Chinese spy satellites are capable of securing similar or better intelligence than any spy balloon.

If the downed aircraft was being used for surveillance, “the whole episode raises a lot of questions about decision-making in Beijing”, said The Guardian’s world affairs editor Julian Borger. “Either this was a case of the left hand not knowing what the right was doing, or it was possibly a deliberate attempt to sabotage any tension-soothing the Blinken trip might have achieved.”

Another possible explanation is that Beijing was “testing Joe Biden’s mettle”, Borger suggested.

It was almost certainly a test, said The Telegraph’s China correspondent Sophia Yan. Beijing may have flown the balloon over the nuclear complex “simply to show that it could”.

“It’s possible that being spotted was the whole point,” Arthur Holland Michel of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs told the BBC. “China might be using the balloon to demonstrate that it has a sophisticated technological capability to penetrate US airspace without risking a serious escalation. In this regard, a balloon is a pretty ideal choice.”

Many experts believe that China’s aim was to cause the US as much embarrassment as possible. Before the balloon was shot down, Biden was criticised for being too soft on China, with Republican Joe Wilson calling on the president to resign over the “catastrophic spectacle”.

All this may be “playing straight into Beijing’s hand”, said The Telegraph’s Yan. The “finger-pointing frenzy” that the balloon unleashed “may be viewed in Beijing as a successful mission, rather than a failed one”.

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