The story of the Chinese Automatic Drifting Balloon (ADB) violating the U.S. airspace in late January–early February 2023 will be a symbolic marker for a new phase of deterioration in the US-China relations.
The relations were rapidly eroding throughout 2022 and early 2023. In some aspects, U.S.-China relations in 2022 evoked obvious associations with U.S.-Russian relations in 2021. While trying to engage in cooperation with Beijing on certain issues (particularly on Ukraine), Washington simultaneously kept imposing increasingly painful sanctions against the country.
Among important steps recently taken in this direction, there have been restrictions on supplies of advanced microchips and equipment for their production to China, effective since October 2022, as well as the pressure exerted on Japan and the Netherlands (key manufacturers of equipment for the microelectronics industry) to join these restrictions. Licenses to supply virtually any components and equipment to China’s Huawei have been terminated, and a significant number of sanctions were imposed on smaller Chinese companies and individuals.
Most of the Chinese measures have been defensive and involved steps to ensure the security of production chains and the national economy. In the meantime, Beijing is also discussing measures to limit certain items of Chinese exports, with potential thermonuclear consequences. Semi-finished products, raw materials and equipment for the production of solar panels can be affected—given China’s monopoly on a number of products, this could be a shock for the renewable energy industry in the West.
The visit of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in early August 2022 played a disastrous role in the military and political situation in East Asia. That trip, despite repeated warnings from Beijing, triggered a period of rapid increase in Chinese military activity around Taiwan, which still continues.
Chinese activities include numerous live-fire exercises in the waters around the island, large groups of combat aircraft and drones flying along the island’s perimeter, and systematic violations of the median line in the Taiwan Strait by PRC ships and aircraft. For its part, the U.S. is increasing military aid to Taiwan, although it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so against the backdrop of ongoing hostilities in Ukraine.
The November 2022 meeting of Xi Jinping and Joseph Biden in Bali was similar in content to the Geneva summit of Biden and Vladimir Putin in June 2021. We saw similar attempts to achieve at least partial stabilization of relations, establishing rules of the game, unblocking channels for political communication by creating joint working groups, and the same predictable failure. So far, we can only hope that the final outcome of these efforts will not be so disastrous as the one between Moscow and Washington.
The U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s visit was canceled due to the balloon incident, while it was supposed to restore the ruined channels of dialogue. The U.S.-Chinese relation is still lagging far behind the U.S.-Russian relationship in matters of mutual alerting, preventing dangerous incidents, and maintaining emergency channels of communication, where relevant experience has continuously been accumulated since the 1960s. Given the rapid progress of China’s transformation into a new nuclear superpower, conservation of this situation could be dangerous.
Nothing more was expected from Blinken’s visit – no U-turn in relations, no strategic deals, including those concerning Beijing’s positions on the Ukrainian issue. Now, the visit has been postponed indefinitely and the dialogue has been suspended amid the rapidly deteriorating security situation in the Pacific.
The circumstances of the very incident with the Chinese ADB over the United States allow us to take a fresh look at the behavior of China’s leadership in the heating confrontation with the United States. According to U.S. military statements, the ADB shot down on February 4, 2023 was the fourth Chinese apparatus to violate U.S. airspace. The previous three ADBs that visited the U.S. during Donald Trump’s tenure were not detected by U.S. airspace controls in time, and the Americans became aware of their existence belatedly via intelligence channels.
If this is true, China is deliberately and systematically doing what the USSR never afforded during the entire Cold War—flying reconnaissance aircraft directly over U.S. territory. For its part, the U.S. used ADBs on a large scale for flights over the USSR and the PRC in the 1950s and 1980s, and the explanation of their purpose was exactly the same as that used by the Chinese now: border violations due to navigation error or malfunction, meteorological research, observations of airstreams, etc.
China’s contemporary political culture attaches great importance to careful observance of the principle of reciprocity, avoiding situations that could be interpreted as Beijing’s recognition of its unequal position vis-à-vis any major power. This is partly due to the severe historical trauma of the “century of humiliation” in 1840–1945, a time of foreign domination over China.
The current use of the ADB over the United States is by no means a retaliation against historical grievances. Rather, it is a response to some U.S. actions within its “freedom of navigation patrols” in the South China Sea, where U.S. ships and aircraft deliberately violate 12-mile territorial water zones around a number of Chinese-controlled islands. The Americans justify their behavior by saying that these Chinese islands are artificial and do not create rights to territorial waters.
Surely, China believes that the Americans are violating the integrity of its national territorial. From China’s perspective, the U.S., as a power external to the region, should not interfere in any of its territorial disputes with the countries of Southeast Asia. Besides, the high activity of U.S. reconnaissance aircraft along China’s borders—and sometimes over disputed water bodies—has long been a matter of Chinese concern.
From China’s perspective, the use of ADB over U.S. territory may well look like an appropriate response to the U.S. actions. Chinese leaders may have seen this action as a necessary step to confirm China’s status as a great power equal to the United States, even if only a limited number of people knew about these operations for the time being.
The political motivation behind the use of the ADB can also be discerned in the Chinese response to the incident. In a normal situation, if the balloon lost control and inadvertently entered (or risked entering) U.S. airspace, the owner would have contacted the Americans, provided the necessary data and information, and tried to avoid a fallout.
China, for its part, responded to the incident only twelve hours after Pentagon’s statement to that effect. There was a dry statement from the PRC about the loss of control of the weather balloon due to force majeure, for which “regret” was expressed.
Shortly thereafter, China declared that it would not tolerate “hype and speculation” about the balloon and accused the United States of indiscriminate and excessive use of force after it was shot down, threatening some “consequences.”
Under the circumstances, it is difficult to assess this as anything other than China’s deliberate humiliation of the United States as well as demonstration of its own strength and confidence. The Chinese consciously chose this course of action in the run-up to Blinken’s visit—now, as the conflict in Ukraine is escalating, the U.S. is more interested in dialogue than the PRC.
The Americans had to choose between continuing the dialogue in a poorer bargaining position after the humiliation they had endured and abandoning the dialogue altogether. The reaction of American public opinion predetermined the choice for the latter. However, this decision was apparently not easy to make.
The visit has not been canceled, but postponed, and the U.S. will probably look for opportunities to carry out negotiations in the not-too-distant future while saving face. Alongside with Blinken’s visit, there were plans for an even more important visit to China, to be paid by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. On February 9, 2023, Yellen announced that she was still planning a trip to China, although it was not yet possible to give a date.
The incident has shown that the Americans are not overly prepared for a tough confrontation with a comparable superpower as soon as it stops playing at giveaway with them. As it turned out, the few previous Chinese ADBs had not been detected at all, and the last one was shot down only after it had crossed the entire U.S. territory, flying over, among other things, an intercontinental ballistic missile base.
There is nothing surprising or particularly embarrassing about it: the ADB is an extremely difficult aerial target because of its low radar visibility, extremely low speed, and a very high flight altitude. The Soviet Union has been practicing its tactics against ADB for decades. The ability to counter such targets was taken into account in the design of some Soviet air defense interceptors. These include, for example, the MiG-31 still in service in Russia, which has the highest maximum flight altitude among modern fighters and is equipped to fight balloons with a GSh-23-6 cannon.
In the United States, reconnaissance ADBs did not show up during the Cold War, simply because the Soviet Union lacked the necessary technical capabilities in the early decades of the confrontation, and the late-Soviet gerontocracy was later afraid to respond in kind to violations of its airspace. Now, the Americans faced a more active opponent and have yet to learn many new skills.
The traditional U.S. propensity to make up for real-world failures with media victories was not very convincing either. Covering the incident, U.S. propaganda followed two lines. They claimed that, first, the Chinese balloon could not have caused any serious damage to the U.S. compared to China’s existing reconnaissance satellites, and second, that the vehicle was not shot down so as not to pose a threat to civilians on the ground.
The second claim is patently absurd: a significant part of the Chinese ADB route passed over deserted or sparsely populated areas, where the risk of harm to civilians was equal to zero. As for the former, the ADB surely remains a valuable reconnaissance tool that can significantly supplement satellite data. For its part, the U.S. has made extensive use of balloons in the operations against Iraq and Afghanistan.
The reconnaissance satellite operates at altitudes of hundreds of kilometers above the ground, while the balloon does so in the altitude range of 20–30 km. This gives it additional capabilities to conduct electronic reconnaissance and detailed ground surveys. The ADB is capable of monitoring atmospheric chemistry and making other measurements useful for the reconnaissance of nuclear-weapons-related targets. Finally, the balloon is capable of remaining over the same territory for long periods of time, tracking the situation there dynamically, and its flight time over an area is not predictable, unlike that of satellites.
Was the incident with the balloon an intentional attempt to disrupt Blinken’s visit from the very beginning? Hardly. If the Chinese had flown around the U.S. three times in the Trump presidency with their ADBs and got away with it, it would make sense to continue this successful practice. When the “balloon case” became public, the Chinese might have chosen an escalatory course of action based on their view of the situation. It is likely that Beijing concluded that it would not lose with any possible U.S. reaction to the incident, and this is probably true.
From our partner RIAC