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White: The international ramifications of a Chinese balloon

The headlines have been filled with news of espionage balloons in U.S. skies. What does this mean for our relationship with China going forward?
Image by Ava Weinreis

On Feb. 24, 2022, Russia began their invasion of Ukraine. A year later, worldwide tensions are bubbling. Given the increase in U.S. military presence in Taiwan and intelligence suggesting President Xi Jinping of China may provide military support for Russia, it is beginning to look like the stage is set for a second Cold War.

On Friday, China called for a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Ukraine. This came alongside a call to abandon the “Cold War mentality” and to begin “respecting the sovereignty of all countries.”

Regardless, the balloons have escalated tensions, Chinese in origin or otherwise, spotted and shot down in American and Canadian skies. 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the balloon taken down off the coast of North Carolina earlier this month was equipped with surveillance equipment and that it “attempted to surveil sensitive military sites.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin asserted that it was simply a weather balloon – a claim that seems to be a falsehood, at least based on statements from Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin

In wake of the balloon discovery, Blinken postponed a trip to Beijing, one of great importance for quelling the tension between the two nations. During their subsequent meeting in Munich, Wang offered no apology.  

The balloons taken down over Alaska, the Yukon and Lake Huron seem to be of no relation. These balloons, though generating an anxious nationwide dialogue, are believed to have been independent research balloons.

That didn’t stop the news cycle and general population from speculating about the potential Chinese origin of those balloons when they were first taken down and their potential threat.

When the first balloon was spotted, I recall a less informed friend of mine assuming that some local service outages were caused by said balloons. They went on to make some remark about turning China to glass, which I found distasteful at best.

“That balloon seems to have no connection to the three objects that were shot down over Canada and the United States,” said Tracey Blasenheim, a political science scholar who recently received a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. “Except for the fact that, according to U.S. officials, they were detected because the balloon incident put NORAD on higher alert about objects at particular altitudes.”

While the exact technology present in the balloon is unclear, Blasenheim said its purpose was less up in the air.

“It does pretty clearly seem to be an espionage balloon,” Blasenheim said. “Chinese protests aside.”

Without fully understanding the balloon’s design, it is hard to determine its exact importance. It could, potentially, have no greater intelligence-gathering capabilities than those demonstrated by Chinese satellites, which are already capable of procuring images of our military bases.

Based on the speed and altitude at which the balloon was traveling, it is hard to believe that China expected this balloon to go completely unnoticed, Blasenheim said. 

“So either this was a mistake,” he said. “Or, it was meant to be picked up.”

Now, this is no conspiratorial belief. Tensions between the U.S. and China have been coming to a boil for quite some time. Given U.S. General Mike Minihan’s leaked memo predicting a 2025 war with China and U.S. military support of Taiwan, it is likely the balloon could have been a response to what China views as U.S. aggression.

Perhaps this is what they meant by “respecting the sovereignty of all countries.”

“In my read, the balloon may have been a signal of significant Chinese dissatisfaction with U.S. actions,” Blasenheim said. “It put the ball in the U.S. court.”

He continued. “The Chinese didn’t want to be the ones to say that we walked away from diplomacy. They wanted the U.S. to make that move.”

If China does decide to send military equipment to Russia, or threaten to if the U.S. remains in Taiwan, we could see a relatively small infraction escalate far beyond what was necessary, Blasenheim said.

This serves as a grim reminder of how dangerous miscommunication can be in the posturing of world powers. Ronald Reagan (for all his faults) and his relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev were integral in the de-escalation of the Cold War.

Both the U.S. and China have an abundance of nuclear weapons and military power. An inability to communicate over a surveillance balloon that is possibly of little significance has already pushed much of our citizenry to near hysteria and into a retaliatory fervor. 

“The U.S. and Soviet Union remained, even enduring events like the Cuban Missile Crisis, in pretty good communication with one another,” Blasenheim said. “When the U.S. shot down the balloon over North Carolina or out just off the coast, as the Secretary of Defense called his counterpart in China…no one picked up on the Chinese end.”

Blasenheim explained that this isn’t necessarily a condemnation of China or some sort of refusal to communicate but rather a matter of differing norms and practices. The two nations seem to be on different pages in handling these circumstances.

But, these communication failures must be resolved, one way or another. The hoopla surrounding the balloon has already spiraled to a point of absurdity – what happens if there are more serious future transgressions?

Some are already preparing for World War III. President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has already warned of as much if China decides to back Russia. Not to mention those like my friend who refuse to see the side of the Chinese and are hoping for hellfire.

Blasenheim shared a video with me of the first balloon being shot down, while someone behind the camera cheers and yells. “That’s my airforce right there, buddy,” the person behind the camera said.

It’s a funny clip but also frightening considering its implications. A nation, prone to acts of violent nationalism, riled up against a nation that poses a hypothetical ideological and existential threat is a worrying image. 

Politicians will most likely push for a more aggressive response to China in the future, whether to line their own pockets through military contracts or to ensure votes from their frightened and angry constituents. Much of our citizenry will agree with this and view China as some communist boogeyman out for the destruction of football, barbeque and everything else our nation holds dear (not to say either are of little importance).

Of course, a level of assertiveness is necessary here, but to do so without an attempt to communicate or find more civilized solutions could lead us down a path from which we may never return.

“There are plenty of opportunities to step off this course,” Blasenheim said. “The U.S. and China are not headed towards an inevitable conflict, in my opinion.” 

But, he continued, “It is worrying if something more serious than a balloon were to pop up and the level of communication and the norms of signaling are where they are. It could be much more difficult to prevent a similar event from really spiraling.”

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