Tensions Between U.S. and China Ballooning to New Heights

Written by Cameron Chambers

February 5, 2023

Tensions between the U.S. and China continue to rise given this week’s spy balloon incident which saw a Chinese high-altitude balloon cross the continental U.S. China has responded to the sighting by stating that the balloon’s purpose was for meteorological purposes and that China did not have operational control of the balloon. The U.S. insists that the balloon is likely engaging in intelligence activities.  This incident led to the cancellation of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s visit to China.

Calls for the Biden Administration to shoot the balloon down came from several in the GOP. Ryan Zinke, a Republican congressman from Montana, stated “Shoot. It. Down. The Chinese spy balloon is [a] clear provocation. In Montana we do not bow. We shoot it down. Take the shot”. The White House took a more leveled approach by stating that it posed no threat but was a “violation of our sovereignty.” Notably, around 2:00pm on February 4th, the U.S. Military shot the balloon down over the Atlantic Ocean after the U.S. military warned earlier that shooting it down over land was too risky. The New York Times reports that the Chinese Foreign Ministry responded to the shooting down of the balloon in a statement that reads “China will resolutely defend the legitimate rights and interests of the enterprise involved and retains the right to respond further.”

It is unclear what the purpose of the Chinese high-altitude balloon is considering China operates several satellites. James Rogers, a professor at the University of Southern Denmark and Cornell University, suggests that the balloons are cheaper than satellites and since they are closer to the ground, they offer a clear picture of the area. Furthermore, Rogers states “balloons can stay over one area for longer periods” this gives the user a more efficient way of collecting imagery and signals intelligence over a specific area.

The U.S.-China relationship is in a precarious state after several high-profile media reports have surfaced over the past month, including a memo by Air Force General Mike Minihan which predicts a war with China in 2025. Gen. Minihan is stated as saying “I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me we will fight in 2025”. It is clear that China is viewed as the major pacing challenge by the U.S. and relations will likely be strained further.

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