The balloon fallout

Harsha Kakar
Politics in democracies implies targeting the government at every opportunity as part of vote bank politics. How this impacts international ties is of no concern to those involved. India has witnessed it regularly. It was visible in the US when the Chinese balloon overflew the country. It was neither the first balloon to have entered US airspace nor the last. As compared to dedicated satellite monitoring, electronic eavesdropping and elaborate spy networks which function 24X7,the threat posed by a balloon would have been less. The fact that it was permitted to enter US airspace, despite being monitored,indicates that initially it was not considered a threat.
The emergence of a second balloon over South America only added to the political game. The US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, briefing diplomats of 40 countries stated that China’s surveillance balloons have collected information from Japan, Taiwan, India, Vietnam and the Philippines, apart from the US in recent years. During the Trump administration, four instances of Chinese balloons flying over or near the US were reported.
The balloon emerged as a threat only when politics began to dominate the incident. What irked the Republicans was that the balloon flew slowly across the US with no word from the Democratic led government. They exploited the incident and pushed Biden to react by claiming ‘China made a mockery of our airspace.’ Biden’s administration was compelled to stem the flow of public anger by shooting it down, as also Anthony Blinken, the US secretary of state, cancelling his scheduled visit to China. The balloon was destroyed one week after it entered the airspace.
Political pressures pushed US-China relations to a new low. The Biden administration accused China of being irresponsible and enhancing tensions. It commented, ‘this is an unacceptable intrusion into American sovereignty.’ The view that the balloon was involved in spying suddenly began gaining credence. Earlier the Pentagon spokesperson had mentioned, ‘(the balloon was) travelling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.’
Further details on technology contained and equipment on board would only emerge after remnants of the balloon have been scientifically examined, which is currently in progress. The US now believes that the balloon equipped with high-tech sensors can hover over a site far longer thus picking up radio, cellular and other transmissions that cannot be detected from space. This is adding spice to the spying theory.
The US has refused to hand the balloon back to China. To retain public support the Government defended its delay by stating that by enabling the balloon to traverse the length of the country, investigators would be able to gleam material which was collected during its flight as also of satellites it was corresponding with.
China had from the time the balloon was discovered projected its regret claiming it as an accident. Its spokesperson stated, ‘We have made it clear that this was entirely an accident caused by force majeure, and the US deliberately exaggerated it. The armed attacks are unacceptable and irresponsible.’ Once the incident gained public attention, China was forced to defend itself. China kept insisting that the US must not shoot down the balloon. It also responded angrily when the US announced it would not return the balloon back to China.
China had to react angrily to the US shooting it down, though the US was legally justified as the balloon violated its airspace. Its spokesperson mentioned, ‘China expresses its strong dissatisfaction and protest against the US’s use of force to attack civilian unmanned aircraft,’ adding ‘it reserves the right to take further responses.’However, China never disclosed the company involved in its development or usage, conveying the message that it was a government agency,linked to the PLA, and hence its intent was not entirely honourable.
Any chances of US-China rapprochement post the balloon incident were pushed away by political games being played out within the US. The Republicans claimed that the incident, just prior to a planned visit of Blinken to Beijing, was not coincidental but planned and orchestrated by China. After all, the Republicans control the senate forcing Biden to tread cautiously. Their accusations compelled the Biden administration to stall all interactions with China.
Blinken spoke to China’s director of Central Foreign Affairs Office, Wang Yi, and mentioned that it was an ‘irresponsible act and a clear violation of US sovereignty and international law that undermined the purpose of the trip.’ Simultaneously, China refused to accept the US request for a conversation between the US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe. China is attempting to project frustration at US actions.
China had been seeking to reset ties which have been moving south in recent times as it continues its support to Russia, as also displays aggressive behaviour against Taiwan and other neighbours in the South China Sea. Its reactions after visits by senior US members to Taiwan had lowered ties to rock bottom. Had China warned Washington prior to the balloon entering US airspace, the reaction within the US would have been subdued.
The Chinese mouthpiece, Global Times, accused the USof overplaying the incident. It stated in an article, ‘The balloon posed no impact let alone a threat to US national security. Yet due to Washington’s excessive hype, the so-called China threat theory has been promoted in a radical manner.’The hype produced within the US on the balloon incident portrayed China as a nation which refuses to adopt to global norms.
The incident has also enhanced the anti-China narrative. The future will witness both democrats and the republicans competing with each other to project stronger attitudes towards China. The balloon is just a trigger to the commencement of a political battle within the US, to kickstart the presidential election campaign. The Biden administration will be compelled to be slow in resolving differences with China. China, on its part, is currently on the defensive. It has threatened retaliation but has limited options.
The author is Major General (Retd)