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The truth behind the Chinese Balloon dilemma

A look into the recent events of the Chinese balloon and how its consequences.

By: Carolina Lopes

Image of the Chinese Balloon.

On the first of February, a strange object was spotted in the sky in Montana, USA. This was the first sighting of the Chinese balloon. The balloon continued passing over the USA, spotted above several military bases. After further investigation, American officials came to assume that this balloon was being used for spying purposes. In response, China acknowledged that the balloon was theirs, but claimed that it had blown off course due to unpredictable wind. Since then, more and more facts have been revealed, leading to rising tensions between China and the USA, worsening the already poor relationship between the two superpowers.

Timeline of Recent Events(2023):

  • 28/01 - Balloon sets foot in American airspace, in the southern area of Alaska. It then goes over the north of the Aleutian Islands, and towards its principal areas. American officials did not officially recognize the balloon, nor its existence in the country.

  • 30/01 - The balloon arrives in Canada.

  • 31/01 - Balloon goes by Idaho to return to American territory, the US contemplates whether to shoot it down (according to the Washington Post), they decide against it due to safety issues with inhabitants below.

  • 01/02 - Goes over Montana (close to Malmstrom Air Force Base) which contains nuclear missile storages. Civilians began to take notice and even record videos, defining the object as a “big round disc in the sky”. Billings Logan International Airport puts a stop to its flights due to the balloon. President Biden allows officials to eliminate the balloon “as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives under the balloon’s path,” - Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

  • 02/02 - US authorities don’t reveal to the public that the balloon had been roaming around its territory for a few days. A pentagon spokesman, Patrick Ryder reveals that the balloon was roaming at an altitude “well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.”

  • 03/02 - The balloon continued travelling through Kansas and Missouri leading to more civilians seeing the balloon. China’s Foreign Ministry addressed the situation by stating that the “airship” was in reality a “weather balloon” which had deflected, caused by “the influence of westerly winds and its limited control capacity”. They continued saying that “China regrets that the airship strayed into the United States by mistake.” The planned travel to Beijing is delayed and Blinken refers to the “surveillance balloon” saying that it “undermined” the function of the meeting. A spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that certain politicians and media had “hyped” the conflict in order to “smear China.” Another suspected Chinese balloon in Canada is being trailed and there was another balloon roaming through South America.

  • 04/02 - US eliminated the balloon by shooting it down and it landed on the Atlantic Ocean. US authorities claimed that the balloon’s course had passed by numerous American military bases.

Navy Divers participated in the search for the balloon’s remainders.

Following the balloon being shot down, the collection of its remnants have proved to be difficult. However, authorities were able to retrieve sensors and important parts of the balloon which are currently being investigated by the government. The US Northern Command revealed that "significant debris from the site, including all of the priority sensor and electronics pieces identified", have been retrieved. There has already been significant information exposed to the public on the balloon’s capabilities. It’s equipped with solar panels which could carry out “multiple active intelligence collection sensors”. The senior state department official also states that it had antennas which could gather information and geo-locate communication. In relation to this, Gregory Falco (professor at Johns Hopkins University's Department of Civil and Systems Engineering) commented by stating that these “types of antennas are meant for surveillance technology and this is not something you would expect for any type of scientific mission," and that "they have a high-powered system that can do a lot of data relay, I don't know exactly what they were collecting, but all the mechanics are there for getting a lot of data back to their satellites."

China has claimed that the balloon was used for meteorological research purposes and it changed direction followed by unpredictable westerlies. BBC Weather’s Simon King confirms that the winds in China are westerlies, and that "in recent days, the wind speeds above an altitude of 30,000 to 40,000ft (9,000 to 12,000m) were 150mph (240km/h) or above in this area of the Pacific," he says. "There is nothing unusual about wind speeds this high in this area." These wind trends would have caused the balloon to go north-east to Alaska and then south-east in Canada then to Montana which was the course the balloon followed.

Nonetheless, "Most weather balloons rise to about 100,000ft and then blow apart after a few hours, with the equipment falling to Earth by parachute. It is unusual for a weather balloon to last days like this."

Researcher in defence studies at King College London, Dr Marina Miron claims that this balloon could be more complex than what China is expressing. "The balloon could be controlled remotely by an operator on the ground," she says. "They'd be able to raise or lower the altitude of the balloon so that it could pick up different wind currents which are going in different directions. You would want to be able to make it linger over a spot to collect data. This is something you can do with a balloon which you cannot do with a satellite."

After the 4th of February, another 3 unknown objects were shot down. One in Alaska, another in Canada’s Yukon area and at Lake Huron. The one in Alaska had the same size as a small car, the Yukon one had a cylindrical shape and the Michigan object was a “small, metallic balloon with a tethered payload below it.”. White House spokesman, John Kirby, says that these objects have been shot down “out of an abundance of caution”. The objects didn’t create “any direct threat to people on the ground”, however they were eliminated “to protect our security, our interests, and flight safety”. Later on Tuesday, he stated that these objects weren’t necessarily for data collection purposes but “could be balloons that were simply tied to commercial or research entities, and therefore benign.” The search for these objects have been cancelled due to poor weather conditions and the lack of progress made. Nobody has claimed ownership over the objects.

How has China responded to this situation?

At first, China remained silent on the issue, but later the government stated that the balloon was a "civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological purposes" and they"regretted the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure". China’s approach was remorseful as it led to delay of their meeting with the USA. Contrary to the government, local state media had a different reaction to the incident, China Daily states that "fabricated balloon lie cannot be tied down to China". Common online users started joking about the incident, naming the balloon as “The Wandering Balloon” as a reference to the Chinese science-fiction novel and film The Wandering Earth.

Chinese officials later made a more aggressive reply, following the news of the cancelled visit, they declared that "some politicians and media in the US have hyped it up to attack and smear China''. Seeing this, The Global Times (one of the main state-owned newspapers) encouraged the US “to be more sincere in fixing relations with China instead of making provocative actions against it".

In response to the shooting down of the object, the ministry spokeswoman, Mao Ning, labelled the action as “a clear overreaction” and “unacceptable and irresponsible.” As a reply to whether China had asked for the remnants of the balloon back, she said, “The airship does not belong to the US. It belongs to China.”

Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Mao Ning.

Afterwards, Chinese officials made an official complaint to the US embassy, claiming that they “reserved the right to use necessary means to deal with similar situations.” The previous editor-in-chief of Global Times claimed that the USA “had to end” this by putting into use a missile since Americans ” aren't able to treat an accident by seeking truth from facts, instead they had to politicize it.”

China’s foreign affairs committee made a formal condemnation of US lawmakers’ stating that the action taken towards the balloon was “purely malicious hype and political manipulation.” The committee’s resolution declared that "In fact, it is the United States that wantonly interferes in other countries' internal affairs, violates their sovereignty, and conducts surveillance on other countries,".

China accused the USA of entering Chinese airspace more than ten times just in 2022. The USA denied this claim.

"The first thing the US side should do is start with a clean slate, undergo some self-reflection, instead of smearing and accusing China," said a foreign ministry spokesman. In a normal press briefing, she also said "It's not uncommon as well for the US to illegally enter the airspace of other countries," "Since last year alone, US balloons have illegally flown above China more than 10 times without any approval from Chinese authorities." He claimed that Beijing’ solution to this was handled in a “responsible and professional” approach. Mr Wang said "But what we want to tell everyone here is that the US' frequent firing of advanced missiles used to strike down unidentified flying objects is an overreaction of excessive force,”. Chinese media has also reported that there was an unknown object roaming at the country’s east coast and the military plans to shoot it down.

How has the relation between the USA and China been affected?

A day prior to the meeting between the US and China, the balloon was spotted, adding to the tension between the two countries. Beijing expressed their apologies over the incident and didn’t intend for this to delay the Secretary of State’s meeting with them. Regardless, the US cancelled the visit. For the meeting, Blinken aimed to “avoid competition veering into conflict” During this speech he declared that "One of the ways you do that is making sure that you actually have good lines of communication," and how he planned to be "putting some guardrails into the relationship." Jude Blanchette (Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies China expert) explained how "I think the goal [was] to basically fast-forward this Cold War to its détente phase, thereby skipping a Cuban Missile Crisis,". After rising tensions regarding Ukraine’s war, ex-president Trump’s trade war and the recent increasing tensions in the south China sea, this was a chance to build up their relationship after the two countries expressed their desire to avoid conflict in the G20 summit.

President’s encounter at G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia.

Consecutively to this conflict, the USA proceeded to put sanctions and to boost their military in the area. Additionally, Japan and the Netherlands made a deal with Washington to limit exports of advanced chip manufacturing equipment to China, therefore, limiting their sensitive semiconductor technology. The US also deployed more military force in the Philippines due to rising pressure between China and Taiwan.

The most recent interaction between the two countries took place when Joe Biden stated that he would “make no apologies” regarding the response to the balloon, which in response, the Chinese foreign affairs ministry stated that the US “can’t ask for dialogue while fueling tensions.”

Biden claims that he is still willing to talk and there is a chance of the two countries speaking in the Munich Security Conference. Furthermore, Mr Biden and Mr Xi do plan to cover the conflict over a call. This ongoing situation still has more to unfold as we see the two countries address each other and tensions gradually lower.


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