The Balloon Incident And The Fragility Of US–China Ties – Analysis


By Esha Banerji*

On 4 February 2023, Washington shot down a Chinese high-altitude balloon that had reportedly travelled over 40 countries across five continents and had flown across the US for nearly a week. The incident sparked uproar in Washington and prompted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a trip to Beijing that both countries had anticipated would mend their already strained relations. The balloon episode highlights the fragility of US–China relations, as well as the prevalence of underlying, deep-rooted mistrust and suspicion.

The Chinese balloon’s flight over continental United States went unreported until 2 February 2023. A day later, the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that the “weather balloon … had deviated from its intended course” into the United States “due to the influence of westerly winds and its limited control capacity”, and that “China regrets that the airship strayed into the United States by mistake.”1

Nevertheless, Blinken cancelled his trip to Beijing only hours before he was scheduled to leave. State Department spokesperson Ned Price stated that the “surveillance balloon” had “undermined” the trip’s purpose.2 This was not the first time though that a spy balloon has been observed by US officials. According to a US report to Congress, there were at least two instances in which a “rival power” conducted aerial surveillance, with some of those incidents reportedly involving balloons.3 Beijing was the target of a barrage of accusations after US officials said the Chinese balloon was equipped with tools “capable of intercepting and geo-locating communications.” 4

Immediately following the balloon incident, Wendy Sherman, the Deputy Secretary of State, declared that the Biden administration was “reviewing its strategy” towards China and would be “investing diplomatically” in the Pacific to confront China’s “increasing coercion” in Asia.5 

The Washington Post cited unnamed officials as stating that the surveillance balloon was operated from China’s coastal province of Hainan and targeted Japan, India, Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines.6 Furthermore, a spokesperson for the US Department of Defense stated that identical balloons had operated over North and South America, South East Asia, East Asia, and Europe and that the US briefed over 40 allies on the alleged espionage activity. 7

The US claims were met with a vehement Chinese response. While Chinese Foreign Ministry initially expressed regret over the incident, the rhetoric abruptly changed following the US military’s shooting down of the balloon. The US was accused of “overreacting” and charged with “indiscriminate use of military force”. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned of damage to bilateral relations. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson claimed that the episode called into doubt “the US’s sincerity in stabilising and advancing Sino-US relations”.8   

Strained Dynamics

US–China relations have become increasingly contentious due to a variety of issues spanning trade and economics to military and geopolitical concerns. Trade tensions, disagreements on human rights and democracy, concerns about military expansion and potential conflict, and competition for influence in the Indo-Pacific have all put pressure on their relationship and the balloon incident has only served to exacerbate this situation.

Recent years have seen an unprecedented downturn in US–China relations. In 2021, the Biden administration announced its diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics9 and added more Chinese companies to its trade restriction list.10 Furthermore, Congress passed a bill aimed at countering China’s forced labour abuses in Xinjiang.11 President Joe Biden and Xi Jinping held a virtual summit in 2021 that resulted in merely the promise of future talks.

To counter China’s growing technological supremacy, the U.S. Department of Commerce imposed a new round of restrictions on the country’s semiconductor industry in October 2022. The animosity has further been stoked by Nancy Pelosi’s historic visit to Taiwan in August 2022. 

Furthermore, there is a growing mistrust between the people of China and the United States. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, a staggering 89 per cent of Americans perceive China as a competitor or an enemy, while over two-thirds of Chinese participants had an unfavourable or very unfavourable opinion of the United States. 12 Biden and Xi met on the side-lines of the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia in November 2022. Both leaders decided to “empower key senior officials to maintain communication and deepen constructive efforts”.13

Against this backdrop, in both Washington and Beijing, Blinken’s February 2023 visit was seen as a step towards reviving dialogue on trade and reopening channels of communications vital to defusing flare-ups. Blinken has met China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, multiple times outside of China, notably in late September 2022 on the side-lines of the United Nations General Assembly. 

The last time the US and Chinese leaders met on each other’s soil, though, was in March 2021. China’s top diplomats, Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi, flew to Anchorage, Alaska, to meet Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in the first in-person China–US engagement after President Biden took office. In that meeting, Blinken was criticised by the Chinese side for his comments on China’s “increasing authoritarianism and assertiveness at home and abroad”. 

In the aftermath of the balloon incident, on 18 February 2023, Blinken and Wang Yi met on the margins of the Munich Security Conference. Blinken affirmed that the United States will not allow any violation of its sovereignty.14 Wang Yi continued to insist that the US action was an “abuse of force and a violation of customary international practices as well as the International Civil Aviation Covenant”.15

Blinken’s cancelled trip to Beijing could have helped in normalising engagement and communication between the two countries and was seen as a confidence-building measure. The balloon incident however further undermined an already difficult bilateral relationship. Incidents of brinkmanship between the two countries, meanwhile, continue to escalate. In December 2022, for instance, a Chinese fighter jet intercepted a US surveillance plane over the South China Sea and allegedly made an ‘unsafe manoeuvre’. There is consensus in Washington regarding the growing threat posed by China. Xi Jinping in March 2023 called for increased efforts to modernise China’s defence forces and to transform the people’s armed forces into a ‘Great Wall of Steel’. The balloon episode is a reminder of the complexities and fragility of US–China relations. 

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.

*About the author: Ms Esha Banerji is Research Intern at the East Asia Centre, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

Source: This article was published by Manohar Parrikar IDSA

Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA)

The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) was formerly named The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

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