Although the international community has laws, it has no rule of law. Countries resolve the question of right and wrong by following the law of the jungle in which the weak are prey to the strong. In the conflict between the U.S and China, each side is assessing the other’s strengths and practicing self-restraint.
Just as Secretary of State Antony Blinken was preparing to visit China, a Chinese spy balloon entered U.S. airspace, aiming for intercontinental ballistic missile sites as it cruised over Montana. The balloon captured the attention of U.S. officials who dispatched stealth fighters and an Airborne Warning and Control System radar plane to increase monitoring. President Joe Biden learned of the balloon on Feb. 1. After considering the damage that could occur by destroying the balloon, he waited until the device was over the ocean on the East Coast before shooting it down. The balloon, however, has already created a break in and brought tension to U.S.-China relations.
This is not the first time that China has sent balloons across the globe to collect information, although the intelligence these spy balloons can capture is nowhere near that of military satellites, high-altitude reconnaissance planes and unmanned aerial vehicles. The reason the U.S. responded so drastically to the Chinese Communist Party’s spy balloon actually has to do with strategic confrontation between the U.S. and China, as well as domestic U.S. politics. The CCP is using spy balloons to gather intelligence because the surveillance equipment has become increasingly smaller and more accurate. Furthermore, the balloons can be controlled remotely and are therefore not as easily affected by the direction of the wind. One can set a desired target for monitoring, and the balloons can perform long-term and routine monitoring and reconnaissance. Because the information they gather can be transmitted farther, they can be used as a terminal guidance system for intercontinental ballistic missiles. Because users have increasingly strengthened and diversified the functions of the balloons, these reconnaissance instruments originally used in World War II have received renewed attention from various countries.
Secondly, China is adept at operating within gray areas to monitor, harass and threaten other countries. If these actions cause a confrontation or incident, China can evade responsibility by using a variety of excuses. For example, during this spy balloon incident, it has been difficult for China to refute so much clear evidence. So instead, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that the balloon was a civilian device that entered U.S. airspace because it was hard to control in the wind. If the balloon’s path was a mistake, how did it fortuitously happen to accurately pass over a critical U.S. missile base? Even a three-year-old would find this explanation hard to believe. After the U.S. sent a fighter jet to destroy the balloon, China accused the U.S. of overreacting. China’s embarrassment turned to anger, and it attempted to gloss over its own mistake with a resounding accusatory response.
As for U.S. politics, since China is encountering hardship within and outside of the country, it has begun to adopt a softer stance toward the U.S. to improve relations between the two countries. Blinken was scheduled to visit China on Feb. 5 and meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in a symbolic move viewed as a way to break the ice and advance ba better relationship with China. However, the developing balloon incident forced Blinken to cancel the the visit two days before he was set to leave, something that will impact on restoring relations. If Blinken had an important reason for visiting China, such as reaching certain critical agreements, the balloon incident will probably not impede communication. However, if Blinken was going to China to rehash issues such as security in the Taiwan Strait, Chinese assistance to Russia, tech sanctions and cooperation to fight global warming, he actually won’t be able to secure any promises or guarantees from China. Instead, China could use the visit as propaganda to highlight reconciliation, thereby weakening strategic guarantees between the U.S. and Indo-Pacific countries.
Even more importantly, in the midterm elections last year, Republicans and Democrats were evenly matched. After Republicans elected a House speaker following repeated votes, they formed a select committee on China, issuing statements that reflect they are taking a tough stance. This sufficiently indicates that in the presidential election next year, China will be a sparring point between both parties. If President Biden shows weakness in dealing with China, Congress and potential Republican presidential candidates will respond with unbridled criticism. This would accelerate Republican momentum and weaken the Democratic candidate’s campaign, if he runs. If China comes into close contact with U.S. aircraft and warships in the Indo-Pacific region, the potential for conflict will increase. However, since both countries are reluctant to go to war, any confrontation wouldeventually end in pulling back before any real fight could erupt.
From a different perspective, China’s act of sending a spy balloon into U.S. airspace is equivalent to provoking American air defenses. Furthermore, if a Chinese balloon successfully steals important missile and radar parameter data, guides intercontinental ballistic missile attacks or releases a virus that could cause widespread casualties, this could have a major impact on the United States. Thus, the U.S. must take these balloons seriously. It will be difficult to change the relationship between the U.S. and China before the 2024 presidential election. Any visits by important U.S. figures to Taiwan or China, or if China aids Russia in its war against Ukraine are likely to stir further controversy. And that, in turn, would impact trilateral relations between the U.S., China and Taiwan, as well as security in the Indo-Pacific.