L’affaire du ballon’: How a Chinese surveillance balloon became the microcosm of US-China geopolitical tensions. India bans more Chinese betting and lending apps. “China isn’t NATO’s adversary,” says NATO Chief Jens Stoltenberg. India and the US hold critical technology dialogue with a focus on China. Chinascope had its eye on the balloon as much as it did on Beijing – and the world.
China over the week
A giant balloon hovering over the US state of Montana became a sensation on Thursday when Pentagon officials called it a surveillance object from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The balloon had travelled over Canada before entering Montana. US officials then decided to make the information public by informing the media about why they believed the balloon was a surveillance tool for identifying military and strategic sites in the country.
On Sunday, the Pentagon released a statement confirming that the balloon was shot down by the F-22 Raptor, which took off from Langley Air Force Base on the order of President Joe Biden.
“The balloon, which the PRC was using in an attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States, was brought down above US territorial waters,” said US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
The Chinese foreign ministry expressed ‘strong dissatisfaction’ and ‘protest’ against the US shooting down what Beijing calls a ‘civilian unmanned airship’. US officials maintain that the balloon’s travel trajectory close to critical defence sites proves it wasn’t some benign ‘meteorological airship’.
Austin has called the balloon incident an “unacceptable violation” of US sovereignty.
“China expresses its strong dissatisfaction with and protests against the use of force by the United States side to attack the civilian unmanned airship. After verification, China has repeatedly informed the US side that the airship is civilian in nature and entered the US due to force majeure, which was a purely accidental situation,” said the Chinese foreign ministry in its statement.
On 4 February, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Wang Yi, now director of the Foreign Affairs Commission, to diffuse the tension as news of the Chinese balloon spread worldwide. This pressing need to contact the director of China’s Foreign Affairs Commission reflects a subtle break from the past, as the US Secretaries of State had access to Chinese foreign ministers and not directors of the country’s Foreign Affairs Commission.
But the tensions between the two sides over a balloon with relatively limited surveillance capability reflect a widening gap of trust that will not be bridged anytime soon.
Beijing wasn’t happy that Blinken postponed his visit after the balloon incident. It played down his cancelled visit by announcing that “nothing had been planned” by either side. The Chinese foreign ministry’s statement was in sharp contrast to its 17 January announcement, where the spokesperson had welcomed Blinken’s then-upcoming visit to China.
The hashtag ‘The Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated the US claim to shoot down our unmanned airship’ was viewed over 22 million times on Weibo – and continued to rise. The search trend ‘The Ministry of Foreign Affairs responds to the US claim that it shot down a Chinese airship’ was the second leading trend on Baidu.
The video of the balloon being shot down began to circulate early morning on Sunday Beijing time, showing screengrabs of US news stations reporting the incident.
“Although China has explained clearly and unambiguously the balloon spotted in the US is a civilian vessel designed for meteorological use, and its entry to the US was unintended, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken still cited it as an excuse to postpone his planned visit to China,” said a China Daily article.
The balloon saga reminded people of a 2001 incident where the US Navy’s EP-3E ARIES II surveillance jet crash-landed on China’s Hainan Island after colliding with a Chinese PLAAF J-8 aircraft. The J-8 pilot went missing and was presumed dead, while the 24-member US Navy crew was detained and interrogated by the Chinese. The incident followed negotiations between the US and Chinese officials, where Beijing agreed to return the aircraft to Washington after dismantling it.
But what does the incident mean for India?
The sighting of a similar balloon-like object was reported on 7 January 2022 over Andaman and Nicobar Islands’ Port Blair, where the Indian Army and the Indian Navy have a strategic presence. Another sighting was reported over Japan in 2020.
The incident has inspired Chinese social media users to call the object a ‘wandering balloon’, comparing it to the hit Chinese sci-fi movie ‘Wandering Earth’. Some users even compared the balloon to a ‘sky lantern’, popularly used in China’s Lantern Festival, which is celebrated on 5 February each year.
“It’s not a spy balloon; it’s a sky lantern,” said one Weibo user.
Beijing isn’t backing down from its position. China’s embassy in Washington has said the Chinese side “reserves the right to respond” to the US decision to shoot down its balloon.
“Under such circumstances, the US side insists on using force, which is obviously an overreaction and a serious violation of international practice. China will resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of the enterprises concerned while reserving the right to respond,” read the Chinese embassy’s statement.
China in world news
The US-India partnership may have taken a backseat since the beginning of Russia’s war in Ukraine. But that changed last week.
National Security Advisor Ajit Doval met the US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to launch the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies.
Under this initiative, the two governments will work on emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, as well as quantum and advanced wireless technologies. The initiative seeks to resolve the regulatory barriers in the collaboration of advanced tech, which would include expediting US company General Electric’s application to produce jet engines in India. India is looking to work with GE to make GE-414 engines for the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), its indigenous fighter jet.
Though there was no mention of China in the meetings’ press release, the underlying initiative of defence cooperation was a clear signal to Beijing.
As much as the focus was on emerging technologies, there was equal emphasis on defence cooperation with an eye on “identifying maritime security and intelligence surveillance reconnaissance (ISR) operational use cases.” Emerging technologies in the Cyber domain pose new challenges that can have broader societal risks.
India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has banned nearly 230 apps, including those promoting betting and lending. Chinese loan apps have been a menace in India for a long time. Some offer easy loans, where interest rates can rise as steeply as 3,000 per cent annually. If unpaid, creators harass borrowers with morphed images.
The latest action follows the Indian government’s decision to ban multiple Chinese apps, which have been called a serious threat to national security because of their data collection practices.
The reference to NATO in Asia gets Beijing worked up to no end. As Stoltenberg started his Asia trip, he had something to say about China.
“What is happening in Europe today could happen in East Asia tomorrow. China is not NATO’s adversary. But its growing assertiveness and its coercive policies have consequences. For your security in the Indo-Pacific. And ours in the Euro-Atlantic,” said Stoltenberg in his remarks at the Keio University in Tokyo.
Recently, Live Mint reported that senior officials from NATO would hold strategic dialogue with Indian officials focusing on China.
From Stoltenberg’s visit, we can gather that NATO considers that its interest in Euro-Atlantic security is becoming increasingly linked to events in Asia – including the Taiwan Strait and India’s border – where the economic shock from a conflict will impact all NATO countries.
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The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He is currently a MOFA Taiwan Fellow based in Taipei and tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)