Chinese Spy Balloon: Insight Into U.S.-Chinese Relations

Photo Credit: Defense Visual Information Distribution Service

By Alex Ross 
Staff Writer

On February 1st, 2023, Americans across the country took to social media and expressed shock as a balloon the size of a passenger airplane hovered over cities in Montana. The balloon had entered United States airspace just a few days prior, passing the Aleutian Islands just south of Alaska. After three days of drifting east over the continental U.S., the balloon was shot down over U.S. territorial waters just off South Carolina’s shore. President Joe Biden remarked that he had given the order to have the balloon shot down days earlier when it was still in Montana, but the Pentagon advised him to wait until it went over the water to avoid civilian casualties from falling debris. The U.S. Navy sent recovery teams to retrieve the debris for research and analysis.

The incident is emblematic of the increasingly contentious relationship between the United States and China. The United States fervently believes the balloon was intended for spying, while China originally denied that the balloon belonged to them. Although it’s well-known that the two countries have been quietly spying on each other for years, the blatant nature of this exercise seems to have crossed a line for U.S. officials. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delayed his upcoming diplomatic trip to China because of the incident and alleged that the balloon was an undeniable attempt to collect sensitive intelligence on America’s military capabilities. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs proceeded to confirm that the balloon was, in fact, Chinese, but claimed it was a weather balloon collecting scientific data that was blown off course. After the balloon was shot down, both the United States House of Representatives and Senate passed unanimous resolutions condemning China for its actions, calling it a “violation of United States sovereignty.” China’s parliament responded by alleging the resolutions were unnecessarily escalatory in nature and “purely malicious hype and political manipulation.” Since then, spokesperson Wang Webin for the Chinese foreign ministry proclaimed in a press conference that at least 10 American spy balloons have flown over China recently; therefore, American animosity is unwarranted.

At first glance, the balloon’s intrusion into American airspace seems to be an isolated incident that could have been handled diplomatically. However, the United States and China have both exhibited prolonged, serious reactions that are only understandable when placed in the context of broader American-Chinese political and economic issues. This was no ordinary balloon sent adrift; it was a maneuverable spy balloon traveling over the United States during a time of significant tensions between two global superpowers. The most likely motivations for China’s antagonism, while numerous, can be boiled down to three key issues: U.S. support for Taiwan, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and the struggle for economic hegemony between the United States and China.

Since 1979, the United States has officially followed its “One China” policy which recognizes the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a self-governing state with authority over the island of Taiwan. To demonstrate its support for this policy, the United States has historically rejected Taiwan’s claims of independence. Simultaneously, the United States has maintained informal relations with Taiwan signaling strategic ambiguity for how the United States would respond to a Chinese invasion of the island. This ongoing support from the United States for Taiwan’s self-governing status is a position the Chinese perceive to be an encroachment worthy of retaliation. Yet, since former president Donald Trump held a controversial phone call with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, the U.S. has bolstered its support for Taiwan numerous times. More recently, Speaker Nancy Pelosi conducted a diplomatic visit to Taiwan in August of 2022; in response, China conducted military drills around the island. In September of 2022, President Joe Biden disclosed that the United States would support Taiwan militarily if the Chinese were to invade, drawing criticism from experts and outrage from Beijing. His administration also pledged to send military resources to Taiwan for training purposes in February of 2023. This series of events has many questioning whether the United States is still pursuing the “One China” policy. Thus, in signaling that China is preparing for a military conflict over Taiwan, the country may be sending the balloon to gauge the capabilities of America’s conventional and strategic military forces.

An additional motivation for sending the balloon might include disputes between the United States and China over ownership of the South China Sea. This body of water is an important resource for trade, economic stability, oil extraction, and military strategy. China has claimed historic rights to the sea and many of its islands at the expense of the Philippines and other member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) who argue the region belongs to them. In 2013, The Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled that China violated the Philippines’ historically viable claims to the sea and its adjacent territories. The United States has since expressed its support for the Philippines and ASEAN countries through verbal means and military support. The U.S. has significant stakes in preventing a military conflict in the region for the benefit of its relations and agreements with ASEAN nations and for maintaining the stability of the global economy. In response to America’s support, China has been creating man-made islands and constructing additional military bases to counter the influence of the West and other Asian nations in securing the land it desires. In this respect, the spy balloon may have been sent as retribution for the United States’ continued support for ASEAN nations.

Photo Credit: Radio Free Asia

Finally, the balloon could simply be tied to China’s goal of overtaking the United States in its position as the global hegemonic power of the world economy. Both countries rely on each other to maintain the stability of the global economy, yet continually compete to become the most wealthy, developed, and powerful nation. China does so by competing with U.S. industries, enhancing its trade relationships with other nations, but also by stealing trade, cyber, and military secrets. The United States is considered by many experts to be the global executive of a liberal economic order in which it promotes free trade and convertible currency. This order permits other states to prosper under the westernized global economic rules the United States has created to advance its economic interests. Not only is the U.S. dollar the most used form of currency in the world, but American corporations operate in many countries and exert influence on global economic affairs. As a result, changes in the United States’ economy are felt worldwide. China wishes to dethrone the United States as the leader of the world economy because it would be able to shape global economic policy according to its interests. The Chinese balloon could be a shot across the bow as China and the United States grapple for economic hegemony in a world riddled with inflation and economic troubles.

While those outside the military community may never know the true motivations behind the balloon, the incident can’t be ignored as a trivial occurrence. The international issues facing Taiwan, the South China Sea, and control of the economy have contributed to the souring of relations between the United States and China. These three key conflicts may bring a tumultuous future for the geopolitics of the Pacific. If these pressing issues aren’t resolved, the United States may have to worry about more than just a balloon flying overhead.

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