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  • Lim Shu Yu

The Chinese spy balloon: A deflation of US-China relations

By SHU YU LIM


On 4th February, an F-22 Raptor blasted a Chinese high-altitude balloon (HAB) out of the sky off the coast of South Carolina with a single Aim-9X Sidewinder missile. The United States repeatedly called this a “surveillance balloon”, lambasting China over its subversion of the international legal order, both on the domestic front and at the Munich Security Conference. Against the backdrop of a sharply divided chamber, the rare moment of unity within the House of Representatives in the passing of its resolution to condemn China signifies the strong domestic perceptions towards China’s threat to the US’s sovereignty. Following this debacle, Secretary of State Antony Blinken cancelled a high-stakes trip to Beijing - one that was pivotal to resuming US-China dialogues and mending frigid ties that have been at historically low levels.


Gaslighting from China

China displayed rare contrition, apologising for its “unintended entry of airship into US airspace”. This was perceived as China’s attempt to triangulate: appearing strong to its domestic audience and continuing its engagement with the US, while maintaining the consistency that the balloon was a civilian meteorological research craft. However, this narrative has since faded into the background. Recently, China’s triangulation has converged into a unilateral attempt to appear strong to its domestic and international audiences. This has been advanced on two fronts by a rhetoric of gaslighting and victimisation embedded within its classic “wolf-warrior” diplomatic tactics.


Firstly, China has denied the US’s characterisation of its aircraft - a fundamental definition that dictates China’s ability to subvert the US’s condemnations. The US has criticised China on the grounds that the aircraft was used for military purposes, thereby qualifying it as a state aircraft that places China in direct violation of Article 3 of the Chicago Convention. Yet, by maintaining that the balloon was civilian in nature, China has claimed force majeure, arguing that the US response was “absurd and hysterical” and a violation of Article 23 of the aforementioned convention. This is a blatant act of Chinese gaslighting, proposing an argument that barely holds water considering the mounting evidence in favour of the balloon’s spying capabilities (analysed by the debris the US had collected).


Secondly, China has played the pity card, criticising the US for its hypocrisy, claiming that US HABs have flown over its airspace more than 10 times over the past year. China calls for the US to reflect on its own actions instead of instigating a conflict with China. Washington has officially denied China’s claim.


China: instability on the horizon?

The unreasonable arguments posited by China suggest a level of incredulity and desperation by China to legitimise its own mistake. This comes against the backdrop of a hasty and tectonic reversal of its zero-Covid strategy in a bid to revive China’s economy. Domestic stability, achieved in part by shoring up nationalistic sentiments and asserting itself as a counterpower against the US, is paramount to Xi Jinping’s rule, especially as he enters an unprecedented third term of his Party leadership. This could explain China’s attempt to advance an argument that, ironically, only serves to further delegitimise itself in the eyes of the international public.


US-China relations blown off track

While the balloon incident seems significant, the crux of the issue lies in the way countries are now reacting to this news. What we observe is an increasing trend of both sides subverting dialogue, with little means to de-escalate and with public distrust driving their relationship.


The balloon incident may blow over soon, but tensions between the US and China will likely remain sky-high. The two sides are positioning themselves as diametrically-opposing superpowers; hardening themselves into a really hostile stance. This is a perfect breeding ground for miscommunication and miscalculation of each country’s intentions, worsened by the aggressive nationalistic rhetoric present in both Washington and Beijing. This is a worrying sight as accidents like this could very well escalate into tensions, conflicts or even full-blown wars. As US-China relations become more frigid, it is of paramount importance to keep these lines of dialogue open to ensure that these global hegemons do not sleepwalk into yet another Cold War.



Image: Flickr / Claudio Susani

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