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Balloon response highlights Washington's dark purpose

By Imran Khalid | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-02-14 09:33
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A balloon flies in the sky over Billings, Montana, US, Feb 1, 2023. [Photo/Agencies]

More hot air has enveloped China-United States relations after the downing of a Chinese civilian airship by US fighter jets over the Atlantic Ocean, under the excuse that it was a supposed spy balloon, after it had floated across the US.

Indubitably, the incident has revealed the dark purpose of Washington's shift from relative reticence in the early days of the episode to a hysterical pitch afterward.

The postponement of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's planned trip to China did not come as a surprise. Despite Beijing's consistent assertion that the balloon was a civilian research airship that inadvertently strayed and hovered over US airspace, US President Joe Biden went ahead with his decision to shoot it down.

It is a fact that when the balloon was spotted in the airspace above Alaska on Jan 28, US authorities did not raise any concern or complaint because they considered it to be benign object with no hostile intent. US officials, including Lieutenant General Douglas Sims II, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee that they initially believed that the balloon would not have a significant impact on aviation routes or provide any meaningful intelligence-gathering opportunities.

This statement indicates that US security agencies, in the first few days of tracking the balloon, did not suspect it to be involved in any kind of espionage. It was only later that they switched gear to calling it a "spy balloon".

China's Foreign Ministry said on Monday that US high-altitude balloons had flown over the country's airspace without the approval of Chinese authorities more than 10 times since January 2022. Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin, responding to a question at a regular media briefing in Beijing, said that China's response to such incidents has been responsible and professional. It's also not uncommon for US airships to illegally enter the airspace of other countries, Wang added, urging the US to change its course and be introspective rather than smear and accuse China.

The problem with the US response is how to differentiate a weather airship from a spy balloon on the basis of communication equipment. All high-altitude balloons, which are used mostly for weather surveillance, are equipped with electronic gadgets and solar panels in order to transmit electronic signals to satellites or ground radar.

There are many flaws in Washington's narrative that the airship was a "surveillance "balloon. If it was a spy balloon, which Beijing categorically denies, what value could it have offered beyond what could be gathered by satellites? If it had limited added value, why would China take the risk that it could easily have been spotted and destroyed by the US?

However, the damage has been done. The swift responses by the US Congress and the blacklisting of five Chinese companies and one research institute by the US Bureau of Industry and Security suggest that Washington has maximized its overreaction for a purpose. The Biden administration may be trying to outdo Republicans over the balloon episode to gain political mileage, further undermining relations with a "competitor" country.

One thing is certain: The US will now impose extra-stringent sanctions on the transfer of sensitive technologies to Chinese companies. This means that Biden, under domestic political pressure, is now treading the path of former president Donald Trump, who kept the fire of trade war alive throughout his four years in office.

The US has been quite stringently controlling its most sensitive technologies through its internal procedural frameworks and regulators. But it is finding it hard to effectively execute its strategy regarding China because many of the US' Western allies are reluctant to follow its lead in this matter. Washington is trying to push its allies against the economic gravity, but they are not ready to confront or economically disengage from China with the same fervor as the US.

The balloon episode has been exploited by hawkish elements in the US as a pretext to intensify moves against China, and they are demanding that the closest US allies follow suit.

Despite highly provocative gestures from the White House, the Chinese government's response so far has been very conciliatory, and Beijing appears to be committed to its engagement with Washington.

However, the Biden administration does not seem to be in the mood to reciprocate such positivity from Beijing. Despite the risk to many others in this world of connectivity, it seems that domestic compulsions have completely bridled US policy on China.

The author is an international affairs commentator and freelancer based in Karachi, Pakistan.

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