US-China Conflict Reignited over ‘Spy Balloon,’ Korea Should Watch Out for the Aftermath

U.S.-China relations are rapidly deteriorating over the Chinese “spy balloon” that crossed into the U.S. mainland. Judging the object to be a Chinese surveillance device, the Pentagon shot the balloon down from an F-22 fighter jet on Feb. 4 after waiting for it to cross over water. A day earlier, Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled his visit to China and consequently, the meeting between the U.S. and South Korea’s foreign minister in Washington that took place during this period received little attention.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry, which quickly took credit for the balloon when it was detected over the United States on Feb. 2, criticized the destruction of the balloon as “an obvious overreaction and serious violation of international practice.” China claimed the object was a civilian airship used for meteorological purposes, which inadvertently deviated from its course.

The incident has detracted from the conciliatory mood created by the U.S.-China summit in November 2022 . Following an agreement then by leaders to restore communication channels, envoys from the two countries met last month to discuss economic and climate affairs. This month, Blinken had planned to meet with President Xi Jinping during a visit to China. Amid improvements in U.S.-China relations, the situation in the Korean Peninsula was in abeyance, and North Korea has not instigated any additional provocations since launching ballistic missiles on New Year’s Day.

This incident clearly showed how vulnerable the U.S.-China relationship is, where even an unintentional or trivial act can easily escalate into an all-out conflict. The U.S. government silently monitored balloon after it was first detected on Jan. 28. Once news about the object reached the media, however, the U.S. took a firm stand, releasing a video of the balloon’s destruction bolstered by bipartisan anti-China sentiment in Congress and among the public. The situation could get worse depending on what an analysis of the balloon’s debris discloses.

As changes in U.S.-China relations are directly linked to the Korean Peninsula, the South Korean government should keep a close eye on the situation. IN particular, South Korea needs to prepare multilaterally for the possibility that North Korea will resume armed provocation on the upcoming 75th anniversary of Army Day Feb. 8. Diplomatic responses are as important as military readiness. Resolving pending issues with major countries, such as with the United States with respect to North Korea’s nuclear weapons, with Japan regarding compensation for forced mobilization, and with China over the quarantine of arriving visitors, are paramount in expanding the range of available options for Korea.

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