For some time now, US officials have been talking about the need to “put the floor” under a sharp deterioration in US-China relations. But the controversy over a Chinese spy balloon (which Beijing says was a “civilian” ship accidentally flown into US airspace) has scuttled efforts to gradually improve ties between the two countries. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Beijing has now been cancelled.
Even before the current crisis, there was little trust or warmth left between Washington and Beijing. Both sides understand that tensions are dangerously high. General Mike Minihan, head of the US Air Mobility Command, recently predicted in a leaked internal memo that the US and China would “fight in 2025” as a result of a Chinese attack on Taiwan.
While Minhan’s views do not represent an established consensus within the US government, they reflect the fierce nature of the debate among Western officials about China’s intentions toward Taiwan.
Escalating military tensions have made US efforts to restrict the supply of state-of-the-art technology to China more determined. The country has announced new restrictions on exports of semiconductors and related equipment, threatening its high-tech sector and some major Chinese and Western firms. Talk of the two economies “separating” is now routine – although the current reality is that the volume of trade between the countries continues to increase.
It is hardly a revelation that China and the US are spying on each other. But the balloon’s progress from Alaska through Canada and Montana has a certain Hollywood quality that has captivated television viewers and politicians across the US – mounting pressure on the Biden administration to respond.
By historical standards, the current episode looks like a relatively minor breach. Between 2010 and 2012, China is believed to have dismantled CIA operations within its borders – executing at least a dozen US sources. In 2015, it was announced that China had successfully hacked the US Office of Personnel Management, gaining access to the personal data of more than 4 million current and former federal government employees.
America has intensified its efforts to gather intelligence by targeting China. In 2021, the CIA announced the formation of a new China Mission Center to “address the global challenge presented by the People’s Republic of China”.
The growing surveillance capabilities of the Chinese state coupled with the rise of smartphones have made it harder for Western intelligence agencies to operate agents inside China. But the technological surveillance capability of both Washington and Beijing continues to expand. One of the quirks about the Chinese spy balloon is that in the age of spy satellites, it seems like a technological solution from a bygone era. Spy balloons were used as far back as the French Revolutionary Wars.
However, the current incident is particularly inflammatory given America’s already heated political debate about China. Prominent Republican politicians used the balloon trip across the US to accuse the Biden administration of weakness towards Beijing. The White House’s decision to jettison the balloon just off the US coast may have reflected domestic political imperatives as much as national security.
China has its own nationalists and hawks to satisfy. They may also demand an answer to the US attack on the balloon, which the Chinese government has described as a serious violation of international treaties.
In recent weeks, more moderate voices in both Beijing and Washington have been cautiously trying to restart talks between the two countries. Those efforts are over — for now. But in the long run, the stakes are too high for diplomacy between China and the US to fall prey to spy balloons.