Let's call it the "war of the balloons": Four unidentified flying objects have now been shot down by fighter jets in one week over North America. But the mystery of the details should not hide the bigger picture of how far U.S.-Sino relations have sunk in the past 10 days.
PARIS — The first was the infamous Chinese spy balloon discovered over Montana; the next three, whose nature and nationality remain unknown, were spotted and destroyed — one above Alaska, the second above Canada, the third above Michigan.
Canadian aircraft also participated in the operation as part of NORAD, the joint U.S.-Canadian air defense command for North America.
Hoping to save face or avoid blame, or just not to be outdone, the Chinese government said yesterday that a suspicious balloon had been spotted in the Yellow Sea, and that the military was preparing to shoot it down.
There are many unknowns in this affair, which has pushed Chinese-American relations to their lowest level since the two countries reconciled in 1979.
Unidentified Objects of Political Debate
It is surprising that this case has taken on such importance, because it is not really a big deal. Whether the three other objects shot down this weekend are also spy devices remains unclear, but it should come as no surprise that China is spying on the United States — and vice versa.
Balloons or flying objects are not significant by themselves, but they form part of an atmosphere of mistrust and growing hostility between the two countries. And as soon as they arrived in American territory, they've been an object of intense political debate in the U.S., bordering on hysteria.
Chinese-American relations are at a low point. The whole world will feel the consequences.
The Biden administration is on the defensive, following Republican accusations that the government didn't act quickly enough, that the nation's air defense is lacking, and above all, that U.S. President Joe Biden is "soft" on China. Now, with Donald Trump, that would have been something entirely different...
This escalation stands in the way of any rapprochement in Chinese-American relations — a desperately needed effort discussed by Joe Biden and Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 in Bali last November, now at a standstill.
FBI agents processing material recovered from the Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon was shot down on Feb. 4
More than just balloons
Before we can overcome this crisis, we must first get to the bottom of this balloon affair. What were they used for? How big is this spy program? The United States has already reacted by imposing sanctions on Chinese companies whose electronic equipment was found on the first balloon shot down over the Atlantic.
The Americans want to understand what is going on before reconnecting with Beijing.
But another puzzling question arises: According to the Wall Street Journal, when the American government made a discreet inquiry to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs after the first balloon was discovered, the ministry was unaware and took 36 hours to respond — too late. It seems hard to believe that such an initiative could have happened in isolation within the very centralized Chinese system; but the Americans want to understand what is really going on before taking the risky step of reconnecting with Beijing.
This case is therefore much deeper than a simple "war of the balloons" suggests. Between the tensions around Taiwan, the mounting technological conflict between the U.S. and China, and now the mysterious balloons, Chinese-American relations are at a low point. The whole world will feel the consequences.