Mystery in The Skies Raises Fears over Future U.S.-China Crises

REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo
A printed balloon with Chinese flag is placed on a U.S. flag in the shape of U.S. map outline, in this illustration taken February 5, 2023.

It’s still unclear what exactly the United States shot out of the sky three times since Friday, but the incidents involving what are, for the time being, actual UFOs have added a layer of drama to the already fraught state of U.S.-China relations.

As of Monday, the United States had brought down four objects flying over its or Canada’s airspace since Feb. 4, when a Chinese surveillance balloon was sent plummeting into the waters off the South Carolina coast by a F-22 fighter jet. The balloon’s transit across the United States kicked up a domestic firestorm, one which likely influenced the Biden administration’s decision to publicize its downing of three other objects flying in high-altitude on Friday (off the coast of Alaska), Saturday (over Canada’s Yukon territory) and Sunday (over Lake Huron).

There were few publicly released details on what these objects were, what they were capable of doing and who they belonged to. A U.S. military commander briefing reporters over the weekend even said he could not rule out that the objects were of an extraterrestrial or alien nature. The U.S. interventions, though, were the result of military authorities loosening parameters on their radars, thereby detecting more potential targets intruding on U.S. and Canadian airspace.

“That change does not yet fully answer what is going on,” my colleagues reported, referring to the adjustment of radars, “and whether stepping back to look at more data is yielding more hits – or if these latest incursions are part of a more deliberate action by an unknown country or adversary.”

The Biden administration offered little clarity on what was at play. “We will not definitively characterize them until we can recover the debris, which we are working on,” a senior administration official told my colleagues over the weekend. “I would note we have kept Congress continuously briefed and we will continue to.”

Meanwhile, Beijing had its own story to tell. On Monday, China’s Foreign Ministry claimed the United States had sent at least 10 unsanctioned balloons into Chinese airspace since last year, a declaration that came on the heels of public U.S. ire over China’s alleged dispatch of dozens of surveillance balloons across the world. “The United States should first reflect on itself and change course, rather than slander, discredit or incite confrontation,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters.

U.S. officials swiftly rejected the Chinese allegations as “false” and a bid to distract from China’s high-altitude balloon surveillance program, which the United States claims has violated the sovereignty of over 4o nations across five continents. Over the past week, State Department officials have shared information about these incursions to representatives of dozens of other nations.

Some analysts see the Biden administration exploiting what may be confusion within China’s halls of power over how to handle the crisis, which despite the bullishness of Beijing’s rhetoric, has been somewhat embarrassing for the country’s leadership. Now, the United States can go to other countries and point to recent events as evidence of China’s geopolitical brazenness.

“Exhortations to beware threats to the liberal international order, or warnings about Chinese activities in the South China Sea, can’t be half so effective at focusing public attention as huge airships spying on U.S. military installations,” wrote Richard Fontaine, chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security. “Learning that their own airspace may also have been violated by the Chinese government, for years, is likely to stiffen spines abroad as well.”

But the hot air over the balloons ought to give U.S. strategists pause, as well. The incident, arguably much more low stakes than China’s 2001 downing of a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane over southern Hainan island, exposed how fragile the U.S.-China dynamic is right now. It compelled Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a significant trip to Beijing and casts into doubt high-level diplomacy between the world’s two biggest economies in the near future.

“Political fallout from the balloon incident is dashing expectations for a Biden-Xi summit soon,” noted the Wall Street Journal. “Some Chinese officials had hoped that Blinken’s planned visit could pave the way for a leaders’ summit even before an annual meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders in San Francisco in November.”

Analysts warn that the current lines of communication between the U.S. military and its Chinese counterparts are not reliable. Top-level calls in moments of tension have gone unanswered in the recent past. Beyond private distrust, the two countries are sensitive to public opinion, with the Biden administration, in particular, dogged by right-wing hawks always ready to point to its perceived acquiescence to Beijing.

That all does not bode well in the event of a confrontation in a different hot spot. “In this context, it is difficult to see how during a potential crisis over Taiwan there would be any room for steps to deescalate,” wrote David Sacks of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Instead, it is far more likely that leaders in both Washington and Beijing would feel compelled to act quickly and take strong action to protect themselves politically.”

“My worry is that the EP-3 type incident will happen again,” said Lyle Morris, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, to the Associated Press. “And we will be in much different political environments of hostility and mistrust, where that could go wrong in a hurry.”

Whatever the depth of political tensions between both countries, economic numbers point to an all-together different reality. Bilateral trade reached a record-breaking $690 billion in 2022, a reflection of how indelibly linked both countries’ economies are. If the geopolitical conditions dictate that the United States and China are locked in a new Cold War, some experts argue that the rivalry should be approached with the same pragmatic logic on show in the previous century.

“The goal … is to fast forward this new cold war straight to detente,” wrote Jude Blanchette, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There is a clear need for the two powers to collaborate on shared transnational challenges. But so bleak is the state of bilateral relations that for now, and for the foreseeable future, the true test for both leaderships will be their ability to steer clear from catastrophe.”