How the soaring ‘spy’ balloon could take already strained US-China ties to a new low


US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called off his high-stakes weekend visit to Beijing after a Chinese balloon was sighted in America. Experts say the incident and charges of surveillance could escalate tensions between the two nations

The sighting of a Chinese balloon in United States airspace has resulted in Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling off his high-stakes visit to Beijing for the time being.

While the US alleges it is a “high-altitude surveillance” balloon, China has rejected the claims.

In a statement late Friday (3 February), the Chinese foreign ministry said the balloon, roughly the size of three buses, was a “civilian airship” used mainly for “meteorological” research.

China “regrets the unintended entry” of the balloon into the US airspace, the statement added.

“Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure,” BBC quoted China’s statement as saying.

Calling the incident an “unexpected situation”, Beijing said it would continue to communicate with the US.

However, hours later, the US State Department announced that Blinken’s trip has been postponed.

Let’s take a look at why Blinken nixed his Beijing trip and how the ‘spy’ balloon incident has affected the already strained US-China ties.

US calls off Blinken’s visit to China

Speaking at a news conference on Friday, Blinken said that due to the “presence of the surveillance balloon in our airspace,” the “conditions were not conducive for a constructive visit at this time”.

He also said he has informed China’s top foreign policy official, Wang Yi, in a call that he is postponing the trip.

“In my call today with Director Wang Yi, I made clear that the presence of this surveillance balloon in US airspace is a clear violation of US sovereignty and international law, that it’s an irresponsible act, and that the (People’s Republic of China) decision to take this action on the eve of my planned visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have,” CNN quoted Blinken as saying.

Without specifying, Blinken told reporters that he told the top Chinese official that the US “remains committed to diplomatic engagement with China” and that he plans to visit Beijing “when conditions allow”.

Blinken was expected to meet with Chinese president Xi Jinping and discuss a variety of issues.

The top American diplomat asserted that the US is confident that it was a Chinese “surveillance” balloon.

The balloon was first spotted over the state of Montana which houses one of the country’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

Before it entered US airspace, the spy balloon was tracked near the Aleutian Islands and Canada, Reuters reported citing an American official.

The Pentagon officials said that the balloon has reached the central US and is flowing eastward at 60,000 feet (18,300 metres) altitude.

On Friday, the National Weather Service said it received reports of a large balloon being sighted in Kansas City, Missouri, reported Associated Press (AP). 

The US officials have said the balloon is expected to remain in the country’s airspace for several days.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon said that a second balloon was hovering over Latin America. “We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Brigadier General Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement, as per AP. 

When will the US shoot down the balloon?

Officials told CNN that shooting down the balloon is still in the cards and will be done once it is deemed safe. But, no decision has been made yet.

A defence official apprised that the US Northern Command is in touch with NASA to determine the debris field if the balloon was taken down.

A senior US defence official has said the balloon does not pose a “significant intelligence gathering risk” and has a “limited additive value”, CNN reported.

The US has refrained from shooting down the balloon, which has lingered over its airspace for some days now, saying it would create a debris field large enough to put people at risk, as per AP.

Is China’s claim true?

Weather experts believe China’s claims about the balloons are not that far-fetched.

China’s wind patterns – the Westerlies (meaning from the west towards the east) – carrying a balloon to the western US was “absolutely possible – not possible, likely,” Dan Jaffe, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at the University of Washington, told AP.

According to BBC Weather‘s Simon King, “In recent days, the wind speeds above an altitude of 30,000 to 40,000 feet (9,000 to 12,000m) were 150mph (240km/h) or above in this area of the Pacific.”

“There is nothing unusual about wind speeds this high in this area” he added.

King explained that the wind patterns in the north Pacific in recent days “would have blown the balloon north-west to Alaska and then south-west through Canada to Montana”, BBC reported.

However, some analysts say the balloon may have been controlled remotely.

Dr Marina Miron, researcher in defence studies at Kings College London told BBC, “The balloon could be controlled remotely by an operator on the ground”.

“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 balloon which you cannot do with a satellite,” Miron added.

How the episode affects US-China ties?

Tensions between US and China have remained high over myriad issues including Taiwan, human rights, North Korea, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s claims in the South China Sea, chip exports, trade policy and climate change.

Blinken’s trip – which was agreed upon between President Xi and his US counterpart Joe Biden last November on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Indonesia’s Bali – was to ease some of these concerns.

Jude Blanchette, a China expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told BBC that she thinks the goal of the visit was to “basically fast-forward this Cold War to its détente phase, thereby skipping a Cuban Missile Crisis”.

Analysts are of the view that the balloon incident can hit the ties between the two superpowers.

As per AFP, Jacob Stokes, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said that the balloon over US airspace is a “more tangible concern” for Americans than other issues with China.

He said the US administration had already been “sceptical at gestures from China”, including the friendly meet between Xi and Biden in Indonesia.

“The question was, is this change in tone indicative of any sort of substantive change in how China conducts itself in the world?” Stokes was quoted as saying by AFP.

“And so far the answer has been no.”

Matthew Kroenig, a former defense official now at the Atlantic Council, has warned that the balloon episode could lead to a “dangerous escalation” between US and China.

He said even though Pentagon claims the balloon is of “low intelligence value, China is unlikely to take such risk without seeing benefits”, AFP reported.

“In fact, it gave Beijing the ability to better map US intercontinental ballistic missile silos for future targeting and to gauge the US response,” he added.

Li Haidong, a professor at the Institute of International Relations at the China Foreign Affairs University, told the Chinese newspaper Global Times that Washington has sent “sent utterly chaotic signals” with spying allegations and brought “more uncertainties” between the two nations.

“Maintaining high-level communication is conducive to improving bilateral relations, However, deeply affected by its domestic politics, Washington has sent utterly chaotic signals, with positive commitments made by the top leader as well as continuous actions that further endanger relations, bringing more uncertainties to China-US ties,” Li said.

Biden administration has come under pressure from the Republicans who accuse the government of being soft on China.

Jessica Chen Weiss, a political scientist at Cornell University, said the decision to suspend Blinken’s trip “reflects the unfortunate triumph of symbolism over substance.”

“It also confirms the low expectations going into the trip, that the potential upside should have been so outweighed by the domestic political risks of visiting Beijing amid congressional outrage,” she was quoted as saying by The New York Times (NYT). 

Explaining why US chose to cancel Blinken’s visit, Daniel Russel, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific and a vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute, told NYT that the US was “clearly dissatisfied” with China’s “public expression of regret — perhaps because Beijing insisted on hiding behind the laughable alibi that this was a weather balloon blown off course”.

“This incident has soured the atmosphere and hardened positions, and there’s no guarantee the two sides can successfully resurrect the Bali momentum,” he added.

With inputs from agencies

This article originally appeared on and was reproduced here with permission


109 thoughts on “How the soaring ‘spy’ balloon could take already strained US-China ties to a new low

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