Tensions Gripped by “Spy” Balloon: Here’s How Both Nuclear Power Manage Past Confrontations 

Bidhur Dhakal

Tensions between the two powerhouses were seemingly easing after US President Joe Biden meets with his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping in Sideline of the G20 summit in Bali in November last year. As a result of the talks, US Secretary of State Antony  Blinken was preparing to visit Beijing. However, the relations between the two countries have suddenly become tense. The reason is – the ‘Chinese Spy balloon’. Though the balloon was for a spy or for scientific research; the US called it a Spy balloon, while China is calling it the “civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes.”

The U.S. Fired a missile on Sunday and dropped the balloon. It took the U.S. a week to shoot down the balloon which caused a rift in Sino-U.S. Relations.

On Sunday (Saturday local time), a US military fighter jet dropped the balloon on the coast of South Carolina. President Biden signed the order on Wednesday, but the Pentagon suggested waiting. When the balloon reached the beach from the human settlement, the U.S. army fired a missile at it.

“They brought it down successfully, and I want to appreciate our aviators who did it,” Biden said.

F-22 fighter jets operated against the balloon in the sky with the help of a missile. U.S. defence officials told U.S. Media the wreckage had fallen into 47 foot  of water near the beach, in South Carolina, CNN reported.

The wreckage of the balloon is spread over an area of 11 kilometres and two naval ships and a crane have been used to search for it.

An F-22 fighter jet from Virginia Air Base downed it at 2:39 p.m. Local time on Saturday, as more fighter jets and refuelling aircraft were deployed to shoot it down. A single AIM-9X supersonic, hit-seeking, air-to-air missile was used, a US defence official was quoted as saying by Reuters.

For two days, U.S. officials didn’t publicly comment on the balloons in U.S. airspace. Biden ordered it to be dropped on Wednesday, but it was not dropped. On Thursday, Pentagon officials made public information about this.

As soon as the balloon entered American airspace, fighter aircraft were deployed to monitor it. Biden was advised not to take it down, anticipating the damage it could cause. Accordingly, the US took time to drop it. U.S. officials said the balloon was taken into “custody” as soon as it entered U.S. airspace. It was said to have been controlled and monitored by military aircraft with pilots.

Diplomatic relations between the two countries deteriorated with the balloon. The US Secretary of State Antony Bliken’s visit to Beijing has been postponed. His visit was scheduled to take place next week. However, both country have not officially announced the date of the visit.

The US Secretary of State Blinken’s visit has said that there is no justification for unilaterally postponing the visit. “In fact, neither side has ever announced that there would be a visit. It is a matter for the US to make its latest announcement, and we respect that,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Saturday.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the balloon’s entry into the US sky was unexpected. It called the balloon a civilian airship and claimed that it was used for meteorological use. It also said the balloon had limited self-steering capabilities and moved away from the planned course.

Although the date has not been announced, a senior state department official told a press briefing on Saturday that Secretary Blinken is preparing to leave for the visit on Saturday night.

“The Secretary was prepared to depart for Beijing tonight, to take on a wide-ranging agenda that would have encompassed all elements of the relationship,” a State Department official said.

The US Secretary of State Blinken held a telephone conversation with State Councilor Wang Yi, who is also a senior diplomatic adviser to Chinese President Xi. He said the United States remains committed to maintaining diplomatic engagement and an open line of communication and is ready to visit Beijing if circumstances permit. 

Meanwhile, China protested after the US military shot down the balloon. China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it was “deeply dissatisfied and protested”.

“The Chinese side has consistently told the US side that the balloon was for non-military purposes and had strayed. It was a complete accident,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.

China’s Defense Ministry also protested the US action, saying that the US Air Force shot down a Chinese civilian unmanned aircraft that entered us airspace unexpectedly.

““We solemnly protest this move by the US side and reserve the right to take necessary measures to deal with similar situations,” Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Senior Colonel Tan Kefei said in a statement. Meanwhile, Chinese defence experts called the US’ move like ’shooting a mosquito with a cannon, the Global Times reported.
China’s defence ministry spokesman’s warning has increased the risk of a military confrontation between the two countries. “If a similar aircraft is seen in Chinese airspace, the Chinese military will also shoot it down,” the Global Times said in a commentary.

“It’s clear that U.S. aircraft, whether they are for military purposes or for civilian purposes,” Lü Xiang, an expert on US studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, adds “If the US cannot distinguish between civil and military aircraft, it will set a wrong precedent in China-US relations.”

The two countries had avoided a military confrontation in the past as well

This is not the first incident, which brings two nuclear power to military confrontations. We can observe such incidents in history that could have brought these nuclear power into the war. But, those confrontations were resolved with “Civilian Diplomacy”.

Belgrade Incident

At midnight on May 7, 1999, the US-led NATO military coalition fired a missile at the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia. Three Chinese, (two on attack and one later) were killed on the attack.

Then US President Bill Clinton publicly apologized after the attack. It was a planned attack by Chinese authorities. France’s Defense Ministry said in a report that the attack was led by the US and outside NATO’s framework. The Chinese government stated the attack as the “Barbarian Act”.

After this attack, the relationship between the two countries was gripped in tension. China has accused the attack of being planned. Later in August, the US agreed to compensate the families of the victims and the injured, and the US agreed to compensate China for the damages in the embassy.

At that time, the movement of nationalist groups was intensifying in Beijing. The group also damaged the U.S. embassy in Beijing. After the US compensated Belgrade, China also compensated the Beijing embassy. At this time, the two countries were in a state of military confrontation. China had cut off all communications with the US except the dialogue about the WTO admission of China. The dialogue that made China a member of the WTO. In 2000, the U.S. China Trade Bill was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. After which the US-China Relations Act 2000 became. In June 2000, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Beijing. During the visit, he announced that relations between the two countries have improved.

The US described the incident as a “technical compromise” and said the “geological location data was wrong”. The Chinese government and people cannot accept the conclusion that the bombing was a mistake,” the foreign minister told a US envoy sent to Beijing in June 1999 to explain what had happened.

Hainan Island incident

On April 1, 2001, the US Navy’s EP-3E Aries II Signal Intelligence Aircraft and the PLA Navy J-8II interceptor fighter jet collided. This led to an international dispute between two nuclear power the US and the PRC.

The U.S. military plane was present 110 kilometers away from the Chinese island of Hainan and 160 kilometers away from the Chinese military’s Military Installation on Parcel Island. Two Chinese military aircraft intercepted the aircraft. In the meantime, an American plane collided with a Chinese plane. A Chinese plane crashed and missed. The body of the pilot was not recovered and was later declared dead. The U.S. plane made an emergency landing on Hainan Island without Chinese permission.

China has taken control of 24 members of the US aircraft. Members of the U.S. Air Force had destroyed the collected material on a U.S. plane flying for Chinese spying. Some material remained to be destroyed. It was taken over by the Chinese army.
At that time, the US sent two letters apologizing for the death of the Chinese pilot. It also apologized for the US plane entering Chinese airspace. The US demanded the return of US army officers and aircraft.

China had pressed the US to apologize for the incident. The US, however, expressed regret over the incident. But he didn’t mention the word apology. However, there was a dispute within the US over the words mentioned in the Chinese-translated letter sent by the US embassy.

China released the US official on April 11. US President George W. Bush wrote a condolence letter to the wife of the Chinese soldier who died. The U.S. asked technicians to enter the plane to repair and fly back. However, China did not allow the plane to take off. The plane was later dismantled and transported to the US by a Russian aircraft. At that time, both countries reduced tensions by advancing diplomatic officers rather than military officers after the incident.

The US military was involved in the incident. A Chinese soldier was killed. The U.S. military plane was on Chinese soil. U.S. military officials were under Chinese control. But, the two countries wisely resolved the tension through diplomatic channels.

Immediately after the incident, both countries mobilized the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, rather than the Defense Ministry.

To end,

“Spy Balloon” has emerged as a new strain in relations between China and the US. Analysts say that this should also be resolved through diplomatic dialogue.

“We believe in diplomacy to responsibly manage the most complex bilateral relationship we have.  We are committed to maintaining open lines with the PRC, at all times, including during this incident,” we need to note this statement by the US state department senior official in the Media briefing.

The Secretary indicated that he would plan to travel to the PRC at the earliest opportunity when conditions allow. The US relations with the People’s Republic of China are the most consequential and complex relationship. This seems true today too.

As the US state department official underscored, diplomacy will remain central to the management of this most complex relationship, and that’s why, from the Secretary on down, so many of us have been in regular and constant contact with our Chinese counterparts. The involvement of the civilian diplomatic channel could manage this issue in a responsible way, which both countries are in the way.

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