What began as an overblown diplomatic response by Washington to a Chinese surveillance balloon that drifted across the continental United States, before being shot down over the Atlantic Ocean, has morphed into a major confrontation.
Unlike the US balloon shot down by China in 1974 (only one example), this one was operating at a very high altitude, in what has been called near-space, where the atmosphere is very thin, well above where commercial aircraft can fly, but advanced fighter jets can.
China has developed such balloons since 2019, and they have travelled across many countries. These balloons can be used for meteorological and other civilian uses, as well as military surveillance.
With great fanfare, the course of the balloon was followed on TV, portraying the incident as a major threat to the US.
The purpose of the drama was immediately evident in the cancellation of a trip to Beijing by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, which had been set up to arrange the first meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden, to establish better relations between the two countries.
The Biden-Xi meeting cancellation has snowballed into US threats that could lead to a new version of the Cold War, when the US confronted both the former Soviet Union and China.
Charges, counter charges, denials and other sharp exchanges about each country’s spy programs became thick in the aftermath of the balloon incident.
That countries spy on one another, to the degree their capabilities allow, is hardly news. It isn’t clear what military uses the balloon had, since very detailed military surveillance is done by the many satellites countries, such as China and the US, have launched into space.
There is media speculation that the balloon may have been collecting electronic communications data.
The US charges that the Chinese balloon “violated US sovereignty”. But doesn’t every spy satellite in orbit violate the sovereignty of every country it flies over?
Such satellites collect more information over a wider area than a balloon can.
The New York Times reported Chinese foreign policy spokesperson Wang Wenbin as saying on February 13 that the US ran the “largest spy network in the world”, and that it had conducted extensive global surveillance, including capturing electronic communications.
Wang also said the US “had sent 10 balloons illegally into Chinese airspace since last year, an accusation that prompted an immediate and furious denial from the White House”.
US National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said that Beijing had “failed to offer any credible explanations for its intrusion into our airspace and the airspace of others”, reported the NYT.
“The combative exchange indicates how quickly the espionage of the two nations are becoming a revived point of tension in a relationship that is caught in a downward spiral.”
Blinken used the Munich Security Conference of February 18‒19 to raise the tension with China to a new and higher level, according to the NYT.
He said that according to US intelligence, Beijing was tilting to stronger support for Russian President Vladimir Putin and was “considering providing lethal support to Russia in its aggression against Ukraine”.
Should that occur, he warned, there would be “far-reaching consequences”.
In response, Wang suggested that, on the contrary, the US was implicated in the bloodshed in Ukraine, citing its “incessant” supply of weapons to the battlefield, the NYT reported.
“The US is not qualified to issue any orders to China,” Wang told a media conference in Beijing.
The US is by far the top arms dealer in the world. Between 2017‒21 it sold arms to 100 countries, for US$111 billion, which went to the vast US arms industry.
It is indeed “not qualified to issue any orders to China”.
Wang Yi, a key Chinese foreign policy official, was at the Munich conference.
When asked about Ukraine at the conference, Wang Yi said: “We are deeply concerned by the expanded and extended crisis,” reported the NYT.
Wang also hinted that he thought the US had a geopolitical interest in perpetuating the fighting in Ukraine, the NYT said. “Some forces may not want to see any peace talks materialise.”
“They don’t care about the life and death of the Ukrainians, nor the harm to Europe. They may have goals larger than Ukraine itself.”
Blinken confirmed at the conference that the US does not want any peace talks to materialise, in a rebuttal to Wang Yi’s call for negotiations and peace in Ukraine. Blinken derided such calls, arguing that any cease-fire or pause in fighting would only be utilised by Russia to prepare for further aggression.
Washington’s threats against China are backed up by a large number of US military bases in East Asia — 313 by the Pentagon’s count. There are about 750 bases outside the 50 states and Washington, DC. Recently the US has added four more bases in the Philippines, bringing the total in that country to nine.
US ally Japan is remilitarising. Washington’s warships regularly patrol the South China Sea, including near mainland China and Taiwan, as part of its stepped-up threats against any attempt by China to “reclaim” Taiwan.
The NYT — whose editorial policy supports US imperialism — wrote that should China begin to send military aid to Russia it “would transform the nature of the conflict, turning it into an epochal struggle involving all three of the world’s largest nuclear powers and their partners on opposing sides: Russia, China, Iran and North Korea aligned against the United States, Ukraine and their European and Asian allies and partners, including Japan and South Korea”.