The billion dollar question is what the real motive of China could be behind sending its balloon over the United States that was subsequently punctured by a US aircraft fired missile, causing a diplomatic imbroglio of sorts. The US accusation that the balloon was being used for espionage in an area where it has three nuclear missile silo fields appears as unconvincing as China’s claim that it was a civilian vessel that had unexpectedly drifted off course and its mission was mere collection of meteorological data. Both the United States and China have, for decades, used surveillance satellites to keep an eye on each other from up above. Why then did China float a balloon for performing same task at huge risks of being easily caught? The balloon hovered in American airspace for a few days. The US administration had full knowledge, but it kept it under wraps till common citizens of the area spotted it. The latter of course had no idea about the nature of the “moon like” object that the balloon resembled. It was for all to see and some even conjectured whether it was an UFO (Unidentified Flying Object).
Defence and technological experts in the US are scratching their heads to unravel, without any success so far, China’s design in flying the balloon. The explanation offered by former White House national security adviser John Bolton typifies the responses. Bolton said, “In a way, it is more amateurish. Do the cameras in their (China’s) satellites not have high enough resolution that they have to send a balloon over?”
A US balloon technologist’s explanation sounds more plausible. According to him, the weather conditions at this time of winter and the wind speed at that altitude rule out the possibility of using balloons for spying on US strategic installations. In fact, it would be naive to think that China had not factored in the possibility of the balloon being shot down and cameras, radar, communication equipment supposedly attached to it recovered by the US to show the culpability of China to the whole world. This is the reason why China is continuing to stoutly deny the espionage charge even after the US is in the process of retrieving the debris from the waters.
Another explanation could be that China tried to test the US’ capability of response in the event of violation of its airspace. The balloon was ideally suited for the purpose without risking any serious engagement as the payload could be harmless. If that is so, China has accomplished its mission by seemingly controlling its balloon from a remote place as it hovered in US sky for about a week, moving from one place to another, foxing the US defence establishment and forcing it to wait till it moved to a place above the sea.
The question is why the balloon appeared when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was to visit China to try to normalise frosty Sino-US relations. China’s President Xi Jinping had been personally keen on the visit as he and President Joe Biden had prepared the groundwork for it during their recent meeting in Bali.
The answer seems to be that Xi desperately wanted to refurbish his image among the Chinese populace after nothing short of a rebellion broke out in protest against his zero-COVID policy, lockdown and economic decline. He was forced to scrap the policy. It appears his best bait to regain his popularity was to project a hawkish image of himself before his people by taking on the US without risking war or any bloody confrontation. For this sacrificing Blinken’s visit seems to be too small a price since in any case the trip would have at the most created an atmosphere of goodwill and thaw in the two countries’ relationship. This could be done at any point of time. But, the international publicity the balloon incident gave to Xi-led China’s ability to invade US’ supposedly inviolable airspace has undoubtedly enhanced Xi’s strong man image. China’s rage over the shooting down of the balloon and threat to take further actions seems to be part of a prepared script.
It could be said the US did succeed in puncturing the Chinese balloon but China has punctured the US’ reputation of water tight guarding its airspace. The Biden administration has already drawn flak from its opponents in the country, while the rest of the world is wondering how vulnerable the US is in the face of Chinese aggression. That appears to be the upshot of the balloon episode.
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