China expressed disapproval of the U.S. actions towards the suspected surveillance balloon shot down by a fighter jet near South Carolina. Beijing referred to the U.S. response as an “overreaction.” Chinese commentators blamed the political pressure in Washington for the escalation of the incident. The Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that the airship was a civilian vessel that had strayed from its intended path and requested the U.S. to address the matter in a professional, cool-headed, and controlled manner.
China had accused the US of going overboard when a fighter jet was deployed to destroy a balloon suspected of being a surveillance device near the South Carolina coast. Nationalist Chinese commentators said that the situation was exacerbated by rampant political pressure.#Balloon pic.twitter.com/Nntmog8gqy
— News Live (@NewsLiveFree) February 6, 2023
China’s Foreign Ministry stated that the use of force by the United States was a disproportionate reaction and a breach of international norms, given the circumstances. The ministry also declared its determination to defend the legitimate rights and interests of the related company. Later, a spokesperson for the Chinese Defense Ministry, Tan Kefei, hinted that the Chinese military reserves the right to take necessary measures in response to similar incidents in the future, though he did not provide further details.
Beijing is facing growing pressure to minimize the balloon incident’s importance and prevent a diplomatic crisis, as videos of the balloon being hit by a missile from a US F-22 fighter jet are widely circulated on Chinese social media. The highly visible flight of the balloon across the U.S. resulted in a last-minute postponement of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Beijing, hindering Beijing’s efforts to improve its most critical bilateral relationship. China countered by stating that it had never officially confirmed the plans for the visit.
Diplomatic Setback for China’s Xi Jinping
The balloon episode is a source of embarrassment for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who began his unprecedented third term by exhibiting a friendly demeanor towards diplomacy with Western nations to ease tensions amid internal dissatisfaction over the economy’s slow growth and a massive outbreak of COVID-19. At first, the response on Chinese social media was subdued and humorous, with the balloon being nicknamed “the wandering balloon” – a reference to the popular Chinese sci-fi movie “The Wandering Earth.” However, on Sunday, nationalist users took a more aggressive approach.
Noted commentator Hu Xijin attributed the inability to prevent the situation from escalating to the American political climate and sensationalism, stating that the U.S. has lost its impartiality as there is a desire to appear strong against China. Previously, Chinese commentators had jokingly pointed out the U.S.’s delay in shooting down the balloon, reminding that a Chinese fighter jet had shot down a foreign high-altitude reconnaissance balloon in Yunnan province in 2019.
A high-ranking official from the Biden administration countered China’s statement by expressing their belief that the balloon was attempting to observe sensitive military locations and that its path near numerous potentially sensitive areas refutes China’s claim that it was just a weather balloon. The official referred to China as the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Wu Xinbo, the Head of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, believes that the incident results from internal politics in the United States and that China will not further escalate the situation. He explained that China was not pleased with the decision to hit down the balloon, but the statements regarding additional action were simply a display of diplomatic position rather than a real threat.
Impact on US-China Relations Hinges on Evidence of Espionage
According to Mary Gallagher, Director of the International Institute and Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, it would have been challenging for Blinken to address significant issues while the incident of the floating balloon was still a visible concern. The impact on the relationship between the two countries will largely be determined by whether the U.S. military can prove, publicly and convincingly, that the recovered equipment from the balloon was being used for espionage. If the balloon had been found to have surveillance equipment, China would have been caught in an audacious attempt to spy on the United States.
A more intricate issue is whether President Xi was aware of the situation before the U.S. disclosed it to the public. If the incident was a mistake and left unaddressed, it could mean that Xi was unaware of the incident. Xi, known for his strong leadership and control over the nation, has claimed that China is facing significant external threats and needs top-down management. According to Gallagher, this raises concerns about China’s current state of affairs if the military, a corporation, or the Chinese Academy of Sciences acted without the president’s knowledge.
The lack of resolution in the incident before it got worse is a bad sign for future incidents involving China’s military in sensitive areas such as the Taiwan Strait or the South and East China Seas. Experts worry that the loss of trust and limited communication between the U.S. and China could cause normal military drills or surveillance activities to escalate into international conflicts.
Past Incidents Highlight the Need for Improved Transparency
In the past, there have been instances of unsafe actions taken by both the Chinese and U.S. military. In December, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command accused the People’s Liberation Army of an unsafe maneuver that brought a Chinese fighter jet dangerously close to an RC-135 reconnaissance plane.
Similarly, in 2021, the U.S. military was criticized for waiting several days before disclosing information about a collision involving a nuclear-powered Navy submarine in the South China Sea. According to Wu Xinbo, a scholar at Fudan University, both sides need to work towards a quicker and more transparent reaction in the event of similar incidents in the future.