Relations between Washington and Beijing, strained by fronts such as the Taiwan conflict, the technological rivalry or the war in Ukraine, have just become even more strained. And in an unexpected way: for a spy balloon. The dos.
At a crucial moment for diplomacy between the two powers, just before US Secretary of State Antony Blinken left for China this weekend to star in the first visit by a senior official from the country to the Asian giant since 2018, the Pentagon has located what was apparently a Chinese spy probe flying over sensitive areas of its territory.
The find was announced on Thursday and made jump the alarms in Washington, who even considered shooting it down —flights were suspended and fighters were mobilized— to later rule out that option for fear that its debris would pose a risk by falling to the ground. “The government is closely following and monitoring it,” Gen. Pat Ryder noted Thursday, assuming the balloon was for surveillance purposes and ruling out that it posed “a military or physical threat.”
“You have violated US airspace”
The US did warn that the device violated its airspace. That it also flew over Montana, where the US maintains one of its intercontinental nuclear missile silos, generated discomfort. From Beijing they neither confirmed nor denied their relationship with the globe and asked to avoid “exaggeration and speculation” until what happened was clarified. “They would not lead to a solution,” they warned.
Over the last few hours, the history of the globe has, however, taken several turns that further complicate the scenario. And Beijing-Washington relations. One of the most surprising is that the balloon located in US territory, which would have entered the country through Alaska and flown over at high altitude, above air and commercial traffic, is not the only one registered on the continent.
The Pentagon has detected a second chinese globe in recent days, according to media such as El País or La Nación, an artifact that flies over Latin America and also responds to surveillance functions. “We are seeing reports of a balloon transiting Latin America. Now we assess that it is another Chinese surveillance balloon, ”explains Ryder in statements to The Washington Post.
HAPPENING NOW: Photo shows the massive Chinese spy balloon over Montana.
U.S. military is tracking the balloon. pic.twitter.com/RS52mQE9Og
— Antonio Sabato Jr. (@AntonioSabatoJr) February 3, 2023
Another of the keys of the last hours is that, although yesterday the Chinese origin of the balloon that flies over the US was already pointed out, with statements from official sources, today both Washington and Beijing openly recognize that the device comes from the Asian country. What they no longer agree on is their purpose.
“The balloon carries surveillance team, as well as a payload. Once it was detected, we acted immediately to protect ourselves against the collection of confidential information ”, they explain from the US Department of Defense. Yesterday the device, a “maneuverable balloon”, was flying over the state of Montana at an altitude of 18,300 meters and hovering over the center of the country in an easterly direction.
China has acknowledged that the device is its own, although it specifies that its purpose is scientific and meteorological and gives another explanation as to why it is flying over the US: the device would have lost its trajectory, they argue, due to the force of the winds. “He deviated from his route,” emphasizes the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Asian giant. “The balloon has violated US airspace and international law, which is unacceptable,” Ryder remarks, a message that the country would have already taken care of conveying to Chinese leaders “at multiple levels.”
The consequences of the incident they have not taken long to substantiate.
The US government has decided to cancel the trip that Blinken had planned to make this weekend to China, an appointment that both powers had been preparing since November and that would have a vital diplomatic impact: you have to go back to 2018 to find another visit from a secretary of US state to China.
“This incident has soured the atmosphere and positions and there is no guarantee that the two sides can successfully revive the ‘Bali’ momentum,” Daniel Russel, the top diplomat for Asia under the Obama presidency, told Reuters. The appointment that has just fallen off the agenda had been promoted, recalls the expert, during the highest-level meeting between Biden and Xi Jinping in Indonesia.
Top Image: Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brittany A. Chase
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