The Chinese test balloon to measure the reaction of the United States

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The sighting of a huge hot air balloon over Montana set off alarm bells in Washington. Analysts believe Beijing is testing the US response amid rising tension between the two powers

The Chinese trial balloon to measure the United States reaction


Gustavo Sierra

China's test balloon to gauge America's reaction

A Chinese hot air balloon the size of three buses is flying over the Northwestern United States. Beijing claims that it is just monitoring the weather and that it was blown there by the wind. (KSVI-TV)

“Speculations and conjectures do not favor an adequate solution of the matter before it is clarified,” said the Chinese government spokesman, quoting Mao. But in Washington they believe that everything is very clear. In the midst of extreme tension with the United States, China launched a surveillance balloon over its rival's territory. From Beijing they say that it is just a “scientific observer”. In Washington they are convinced that it is a “spy balloon”in search of information on military development in bases in the northwest of the country. Military analysts see it as a Chinese “trial balloon” in a complex situation due to the giant's expansionism in the China Sea and its intention to regain sovereignty over Taiwan. And deep down there is “the great bid” between the two powers to see who will lead the scientific-technological revolution in the second half of the century.

The immediate consequence was the suspension of a trip scheduled for months by the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to Beijing. Blinken was scheduled to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping on Sunday during a two-day visit to China, the first of its kind by a US Secretary of State in nearly six years and the first in a Cabinet member in the Biden administration. We will have to let the tension pass to reschedule a meeting that both parties say they want to hold.

The day before, a witness had captured images of what appeared to be a high-altitude balloon over Billings, Montana. Later it was learned that he had flown over the Aleutian Islands, in the Bering Strait, between Russia and the United States, to fly over Canada and reach the northwest of the country. It would also have been observed from a commercial aircraft. The event set off all the security alarms. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, called a meeting of senior military commanders at the Pentagon and reported the threat to President Joe Biden. Observation rockets were launched and the possibility of shooting down the balloon was evaluated, which was ruled out a few hours later due to the potential risk that parts of the device could fall on populated areas.

Chinese test balloon to gauge US reaction

The Chinese spy balloon appeared over the United States while Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was on an official visit to the Philippines, where signed joint defense agreements against the Chinese threat. (Rolex dela Pena/Pool via REUTERS)

A senior defense official said that “we are taking all necessary measures to protect ourselves against the collection of sensitive information by foreign intelligence”. The capabilities of this particular instrument are unclear. Balloons are one of the oldest forms of surveillance technology. They were used during the First World War. The Japanese military used them to firebomb the United States during World War II. They were also widely used by the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. All that was replaced by satellites that fulfill the same function from space, are highly efficient and less detectable. Although with new technologies, balloons seem to have a second chance. The Pentagon even reported a few months ago that it was considering the possibility of incorporating high-altitude inflatables into its surveillance networks. These balloons typically fly between 24 km and 37 km above the earth's surface (80,000 feet-120,000 feet), well above what commercial airliners fly.

Although this balloon would appear to be more a “signal” or “trial balloon” than a real security threat. “Beijing is probably trying to signal Washington: 'Although we want to improve ties, we are also always ready for sustained competition, using any means necessary', without seriously inflaming tensions,” He Yuan Ming explained. to the BBC. “And what better tool for that than a seemingly innocuous balloon.”

China insisted through a statement from its Foreign Ministry that it was just a technical problem. “Affected by the westerly wind and with limited self-control capacity, the aircraft seriously deviated from the planned route,” the official statement reads. “China regrets that the aircraft diverted to the United States due to force majeure. China will continue to maintain communication with the US government to properly handle the unexpected situation,” he added.

The Chinese test balloon to measure the reaction of the United States

Secretary of State Antony Blinken suspended his scheduled visit to Beijing for this weekend where he had scheduled a meeting with the president Xi Jinping. (Andrew Harnik/Pool via REUTERS).

Professor Benjamin Ho, coordinator of the China program at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, adds to the “trial balloon” theory. “They have other means to spy on the American infrastructure, or whatever information they want to get. The balloon was to send a signal to the Americans, and also to see how they reacted”, he explained.

Some analysts even believe that China wanted the whole world to know about the incident. “It is possible that the objective was to be detected. China could be using the balloon to demonstrate that it has a sophisticated technological capability to penetrate US airspace without risking serious escalation. In this sense, a balloon is quite an ideal option,” said Arthur Holland Michel of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

The escalation of tension occurs after several incidents in the China Sea, such as the constant incursions of Chinese fighter-bombers over Taiwan, Japan and other countries in the area that intensified after the visit of the then Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi. , to Taipei last August. And it happened when Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was finishing a tour that took him to the Philippines where he signed a military cooperation agreement that will allow the Pentagon to use and develop nine bases in the Asian country in a clear challenge to China.

But the atmosphere around relations between Beijing and Washington had already soured last week over a memo from US Air Force General Michael Minihan , revealed by NBC, in which he warned that his “instinct” tells him to be prepared for a war with China, and not only in theory, but “within of the next two years.” Now, floating above that incendiary atmosphere, appears the Chinese globe.

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