What exactly was behind the Chinese espionage operation with the balloon is still unclear. The already tense relations between the USA and China are becoming even more difficult as a result.
The balloon has been brought down from the sky and is floating somewhere in the Atlantic. The suspected Chinese spy balloon was shot down by a fighter jet missile off the coast of the US state of South Carolina. “The aim of the balloon is clearly espionage and its current path leads it through sensitive bases,” a Pentagon official said a few days before the launch. Beijing, on the other hand, was told that it was a “civilian” balloon, especially for “meteorological purposes”, which accidentally flew into US airspace. The remains of the balloon and what it was carrying are currently being searched for. The background to the action, which is also a mystery to experts, is unclear. US-Chinese relations are likely to deteriorate further.
US President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping only agreed at the G20 meeting in Indonesia at the end of last year to strengthen the strained relationship through regular bilateral meetings. After the incident with the spy balloon, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had postponed a visit to Beijing that had actually been agreed on for February 5 – “as soon as conditions permit”, the visit will be made up for, the State Department said.
Video shows the hit – US fighter jet shoots down suspected spy balloon – China is raging
US political scientist Evan S. Medeiros told The New York Times that China “was caught red-handed and had no chance of escaping. And this at a moment when it wants to improve relations with several major powers, most notably the United States.”
Political scientist Thomas Jäger from the University of Cologne considers Beijing’s attempts at an explanation to be unlikely and speaks of an act of espionage. What exactly China wanted to achieve with it is still unclear, he says in an interview with FOCUS online. One thing is clear: “This is not the first time. Several such balloons have been discovered in recent years,” says Jäger. The fact that the US security authorities had been tracking the balloon since January 28 speaks in favor of this. Jäger believes that there would have been no official statement if the balloon had not been sighted over Montana.
This also includes the fact that the USA publicly assesses the threat to national security as low. But Jäger sees it differently: balloons of this type could pick up radio and light signals. This speaks for itself: According to Jäger, the security-related communication in the areas that the balloon flew over had been stopped. “We will probably never find out what it really contained,” believes Jäger. The US will not make the findings that can be drawn from the investigation of the balloon public “or tell a different story,” suspects the political expert. But the balloon still has to be recovered from the Atlantic. The condition of the balloon’s appendix is unclear.
It was foreseeable that the balloon would be discovered. Jäger can only guess why China nevertheless took the risk of sending the balloon. “One possibility is that the right hand, the military, doesn’t know what the left hand, diplomacy, is doing,” he says, referring to the overtures of the past year. “Another possibility is that nationalist political forces in Beijing are outright pushing the US to stall the rapprochement Xi had agreed with Biden because closer ties with the US run counter to them.”
Both sides know that they depend on diplomacy. The conflicts in Ukraine, but also on the issue of Taiwan and the strategic power in the Pacific region, have recently caused additional tension in bilateral relations. “The United States was disappointed that China did not help prevent the Ukraine war,” Jäger said. The US security authorities shared intelligence material with Beijing in September 2021 – but Moscow was not influenced there.
At the same time, Chinese companies have filled the gap left by the suspension of deliveries of Western products to Russia and are now among the main buyers of Russian oil: It was only revealed in December that Beijing was able to buy large quantities of crude oil from Russia cheaply, while the West was able to absorb the energy revenues Moscow tried to reduce.
After the end of its long zero-Covid policy, China is economically weakened and most recently campaigned for US investments at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The open trade war that former US President Donald Trump launched with punitive tariffs against China has intensified under Biden’s presidency. Due to the high punitive tariffs averaging over 19 percent on US imports from China, trade with Beijing has declined significantly. In return, China imposed punitive tariffs of more than 21 percent on US exports to China.
The sale of urgently needed semiconductors and their components to China has been massively restricted since October 2022, and US citizens are no longer allowed to participate in the production and development of Chinese semiconductors. Biden justified the step by saying that the chips produced with it could be used to equip the Chinese military or for surveillance systems.
The critical situation in Taiwan is the focus of US foreign policy – and plays an even bigger role than the Ukraine conflict, says Jäger. While Taiwan considers itself independent, China considers the island its own territory. China has ordered its armed forces to be ready for an invasion by 2027. But with Taiwan’s increasing international support, Beijing may decide to act earlier and take advantage of Taiwan’s current weakness.
Jäger does not dare to predict how China will actually behave. US General Mike Minihan wrote in a memo that was made public that he expects a war between China and Taiwan in the near future. US Chief of Staff Mark Milley believes an attack on Taiwan is unlikely in the foreseeable future because the Chinese People’s Army is simply not yet prepared for it. In addition, the United States has formed strategic coalitions with the countries bordering the South China Sea.
This is one of the reasons why a diplomatic meeting between Washington and Beijing was planned. It is unclear when the US Secretary of State’s visit, which has now been postponed, will take place. It would be the first visit by a US official to Beijing since 2018, but experts say the launch of the balloon could give the US a strategic advantage in negotiations with China. If a meeting were to take place soon, Beijing could be more willing to make concessions, according to the assessment. However, if the US postpones the planned meeting for a longer period of time, Beijing could take a more defensive stance.
Everything depends on what the US security forces find in the remains of the downed balloon, Jäger believes: “It will depend on whether it was an unpleasant development or a serious strain on relations.”