Decision to shoot down suspected spy balloon shows state of US-China relations

After a suspected Chinese spy balloon's intrusion on US airspace, it could be months before Washington and Beijing are ready for diplomatic talks, ITV News' Ian Woods reports

Of all the things that could have driven a deeper wedge between the United States and China, a balloon is not what I would have guessed if you’d asked me.

Relations between the world’s two superpowers were already at their lowest ebb before this latest, unexpected episode on the eve of an important bilateral visit.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken should have been arriving in Beijing today for two days of talks, including a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, designed to establish some guardrails between the two sides and defuse tensions.

Following the shooting down of the balloon, it is hard to see him being welcome in China any time soon, where the government has expressed its strongest objection to what it describes as an "obvious overreaction" from the United States.

The Defence Ministry says it has lodged its "solemn" objections with the US side, and warned it reserves the right to "use necessary means to deal with similar situations" - a clear warning that they are prepared for retaliation.

I don’t buy the theory that this balloon was sent to deliberately derail those talks or test the response of the US military to a brazen spying attempt.

Although the Chinese government is now trying to deny the Blinken visit was ever confirmed, there had been some positive write ups in state media, setting the stage for positive discussions between the two adversaries.

There were op-eds suggesting it was time to stabilize the relationship and smooth strategic communication. Clearly, the latter aim has gone out of the window.

I think it is plausible that the Chinese lost control of the inflatable, but the jury is still out on whether this was indeed a wayward weather monitor or spyware.

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Experts have noted that if it is the size of three buses - as the Pentagon estimated - it is larger than typical weather balloons.

At first the Chinese government issued a rare apology. It took them some time, but they admitted the balloon was theirs and offered the explanation that it was a research balloon which had blown off course, due to some pesky westerly winds.

They haven’t changed that narrative, but it is clear the US doesn’t buy it, and we will find out more when analysis is done on the balloon debris being salvaged from the sea.

Whatever it turns out to be, the balloon and the image of it being blown out of the sky by a US fighter jet, has ended up becoming a symbol for the state of relations between Washington and Beijing.

It plays into the Chinese notion that the United States is no longer just a strategic competitor but a hostile nation.

It is also telling how strong political pressure has become in the United States to show no weakness to China.

When talking about tensions over Taiwan we often raise the potential of a military accident or miscalculation. The balloon shows just how great a prospect that could be.

The lack of visits, such as that which Secretary Blinken was about to make, and the absence of meaningful diplomatic discussions has fostered increased mistrust and suspicion, which has led to greater misunderstanding of each other’s intentions.

The fact that the Chinese side did not communicate with the US to tell them that there was a wayward weather balloon heading their way, is an oversight that also leads us to question the narrative about its "meteorological" purpose.

It is important to note that when it comes to military manoeuvres in the air and water around Taiwan, the defence forces do issue such warnings and communicate with relevant regional authorities about their intentions.

Some users on Chinese social media have joked about the suspected spy balloon during this year's Lantern Festival. Credit: Weibo

On Chinese social media, many people have been poking fun at the situation and the Americans, using Sunday's Lantern Festival celebrations to create funny internet memes.

They very much follow the official government line that the US has hugely, and dangerously overreacted.

There are also plenty which have taken a more sinister response. A surprising number of people have suggested shooting down the flight of Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy when he visits Taiwan.

Despite the military response from China to former speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit in August, it was announced last week that the new Speaker of the House intends to make his own visit to the island in the coming months.

That had already drawn criticism from Beijing before US President Joe Biden ordered this balloon shot down.

So, while we wait to hear whether the balloon was spying or simply on a failed weather monitoring mission, the image of it being burst by an air-to-air missile tells you all you need to know about the current state of US-China relations.

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