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The balloon thing is a bad sign for US-China relations

The US shot down the balloon off the East Coast this weekend and is currently recovering the debris.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken stands behind podium microphone in front of a blue background
Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks on January 18, 2023.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

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

Okay, not just any balloon — a surveillance balloon that belongs to the People’s Republic of China, which drifted through US airspace before being shot down Saturday off the coast of South Carolina by an F-22 fighter jet, which fired a single missile to take it out.

The downing of the balloon partly ended a days-long saga that included Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponing a planned meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping; a cameo from another suspected spy balloon near Costa Rica; domestic political recriminations about when and where to down the balloon; and a slew of questions about the Chinese government’s motivation and timing.

The Chinese government condemned the balloon take-down, calling it an “excessive reaction” — though Chinese officials have maintained that the aircraft is “mainly civilian” and studying the weather. The wind, China said, blew the balloon off course, which sounds like a thing that happens to balloons, except, these must have been very specific winds that just happened to carry the balloon over some “sensitive sites,” 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 has also said the balloon is “maneuverable.”

This is why the US apparently rejected China’s innocent explanation and has called the presence of the balloon in US airspace “a clear violation of our sovereignty, as well as international law, and it is unacceptable that this has occurred.”

The US also nixed this highly anticipated meeting between Blinken and Xi in Beijing, a sign of just how fragile the relationship between Beijing and Washington is right now. There have been spy balloons before, and there are more stealth ways to surveil and spy — which everyone, the US included, is doing. But this one slow-moving setback sidelined even the most basic efforts at dialogue. Add to that the US political jockeying over the Biden administration’s China policy, and of course, this balloon thing would, well, blow up.

The US took down that spy balloon and now it’s trying to figure out what it’s all about

On January 28, US officials first detected the balloon in US airspace near the Aleutians, Alaskan islands in the Pacific Ocean. The balloon drifted through Alaska, headed into Canada, and then came back through 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, US officials said, with the balloon part being even bigger.

The Pentagon said it was not a military or physical threat, and a senior defense official said in a briefing Thursday that, based on what the US can tell, “it does not create significant value added over and above what the PRC is likely able to collect through things like satellites in Low Earth Orbit” — that is, Beijing is not really getting the good stuff. The US took additional steps to lock down information.

The Pentagon initially ruled out shooting down the balloon while it flew over the United States amid concerns the resulting debris would cause extensive damage. But, according to a senior defense official, President Joe Biden had given the military the okay to shoot it down once it was no longer a threat to civilians. That happened once the balloon drifted off into the Atlantic Ocean, near South Carolina. According to Pentagon officials, the balloon fell some six miles off the US coast, in water about 50 feet deep. The US Navy, along with other agencies, is trying to recover the debris in an area that the Pentagon estimates to be about 1,500 meters by 1,500 meters — or 15 football fields by 15 football fields. Teams are also trying to recover the debris to examine the craft to see what they can learn.

“We continue to focus on safe execution of a recovery, while effective recovery, so that we can exploit that, and to provide as much information as we can to the media, the public, Congress, everybody that has an interest in what we’re actually finding,” Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command, said in a briefing Monday.

The US’s firm response, and China’s likely obfuscation, to the balloon show just how unstable the current relationship is between these two countries. Neither Washington nor Beijing have a clear sense of how to communicate or deconflict, and don’t even have many channels to regularly practice doing so. That ambiguity makes a miscalculation or an escalation more likely. As China seeks to build its power abroad, and the US seeks to contain or restrain it, the possibility of close calls or misunderstandings will build with it. And not every miscommunication might be so low-stakes. This was a slow-moving balloon, after all, not, say, a near-collision of military aircraft.

This is exactly what Blinken’s trip to Beijing was supposed to help fix. His visit was meant to stabilize the relationship and build off the November summit between Biden and Xi in Bali that at least offered a glimmer of hope that the two powers wanted to find ways to engage. A senior state department official said in a Friday briefing that it had no timeline to reschedule Blinken’s trip, but that the US felt if Blinken went to Beijing now, “it would have significantly narrowed the agenda that we would have been able to address.” In other words, they’d just talk about the spy balloon, like everyone else.

The polarized US domestic climate is also complicating this. Biden, like his predecessor Donald Trump, has maintained pretty hawkish policies on China, including keeping Trump tariffs in place; curbing the sale of semiconductor technology and getting allies and partners to do the same; and continuing to strongly back Taiwan.

Still, Republicans, in particular, have accused the Biden administration of being insufficiently tough on China. Many leaders seized on the balloon incident as an example of the administration’s failings. “China’s brazen disregard for U.S. sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed, and President Biden cannot be silent,” Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) tweeted.

Even after the administration ordered the balloon taken out, Republicans criticized Biden for letting the balloon enter US airspace in the first place, and not shooting the craft down fast enough. “It’s a shame, but unsurprising given his soft-on-China track record, that Biden failed to take decisive action in order to send a powerful message to our adversaries around the world,” said House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-MN).

This growing hawkishness toward China is clouding the US’ reality and foreign policy response. As long as the US sees China as a threat — and a direct threat to the United States — then this balloon can become a spiraling international crisis.

There are legitimate questions about what China was up to with this spy balloon. Some may have concerning implications for US security, but it’s just really not clear at this point what, if anything, they are. All countries spy on each other, and the US and China are no exception, and they have a myriad of techniques and tactics to do so, many of which are less intrusive and more precise than a massive balloon. Gen. VanHerck, of NORAD, did tell reporters that previous incursions of Chinese balloons that happened during the Trump administration were not detected until afterward by intelligence analysis, and called it a “domain awareness gap.”

There are legitimate security concerns about China’s surveillance tactics, and what it is doing with the information gathered — but honestly, the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t need a balloon for that, just maybe your cellphone. And it’s still not clear why China would let this balloon head to the US on the eve of this meeting with Blinken. Some possible theories include a bureaucratic slip-up or miscommunication, which may reveal disorganization within the Chinese government, and raises questions about Xi’s competence. Signs of such dysfunction are equally troubling, as it increases the possibility of a much more serious miscalculation that could spark an even more serious confrontation.

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

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