For some time, US officials have been talking about the need to “put a floor” on the sharp deterioration in US-China relations. But the controversy surrounding the Chinese spy balloon (which Beijing says was a “civilian” vessel accidentally blown up in US airspace) has stymied efforts to gradually improve relations between the two countries. A visit to Beijing by Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, has now been cancelled.
Even before the current crisis, there remained very little trust or warmth between Washington and Beijing. Both sides understand that the tensions are dangerously high. General Mike Minihan, head of the United States Air Mobility Command, recently predicted in a leaked internal memorandum that the United States and China will “fight in 2025” – following a Chinese attack on Taiwan .
Although Minihan’s views do not represent an established consensus within the US government, they do reflect the feverish nature of the debate among Western officials over China’s intentions toward Taiwan.
Rising military tensions have also led to a much more determined US effort to restrict the supply of advanced technologies to China. New restrictions on the export of semiconductors and related equipment to the country have been announced, threatening its high-tech sector and some major Chinese and Western companies. Talk of “decoupling” the two economies is now commonplace, although the current reality is that the volume of trade between the countries continues to grow.
It is not a revelation that China and the United States spy on each other. But the balloon’s advance from Alaska to Canada and beyond Montana has a certain Hollywood quality that has enthralled viewers and politicians across the United States – increasing the pressure on the Biden administration to respond. .
By historical standards, the current episode looks like a relatively minor infraction. Between 2010 and 2012, China reportedly dismantled CIA operations within its borders, executing at least a dozen American sources. In 2015, it was announced that China had successfully hacked into the US Office of Personnel Management, accessing the personal data of more than 4 million current and former federal government employees.
The United States has stepped up its own intelligence-gathering efforts aimed at China. In 2021, the CIA announced the formation of a new mission center in China to “address the global challenge posed by the People’s Republic of China”.
The Chinese state’s increased surveillance capabilities, linked to the rise of the smartphone, have made it increasingly difficult for Western intelligence agencies to manage agents in China. But the technological surveillance capabilities of Washington and Beijing continue to grow. One quirk about the Chinese spy balloon is that in the age of spy satellites, it looks like a technological fix from an earlier era. Spy balloons were used as early as the French Revolutionary Wars.
The current incident, however, is particularly incendiary given the already heated US political debate over China. Leading Republican politicians have used the ball’s journey across the United States to accuse the Biden administration of weakness toward Beijing. The White House’s decision to shoot down the balloon just off the US coast may have reflected national political imperatives, as much as national security imperatives.
China has its own nationalists and hawks to please. They too can demand a response to the US attack on the ball, which the Chinese government has called a serious violation of international conventions.
In recent weeks, more moderate voices in Beijing and Washington have cautiously tried to revive dialogue between the two countries. Those efforts are over – for now. But in the long term, the stakes are too high for diplomacy between China and the United States to fall victim to a spy balloon.