What the balloon spectacle over America teaches us

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photo. PAP/EPA. It started on February 2, when a Chinese balloon was spotted over the United States, which triggered a flood of videos posted online. It immediately aroused emotions. In the past, such balloons have already flown over the USA, but much higher, so they were not visible from the ground. This one flew about 18 km above the ground, i.e. in the stratosphere (higher than passenger planes fly). It was shot down by state-of-the-art F22 fighters two days later, on February 4, while over the Atlantic. The American delay resulted – as the authorities explained – from the potential threat that its collapse could cause. A day later (February 5), the visit of the head of US diplomacy, Anton Blinken, to China, which was canceled on the day of the balloon shooting down, was to take place. This day also marked the popular Lantern Festival in China, ending the Chinese New Year celebrations. During this time, lanterns that look like small balloons are hung everywhere, and one of the popular customs is to solve puzzles attached to them on pieces of paper.

Direction Hawaii?

Since the appearance of the Chinese balloon in the American airspace, the term “Chinese spy balloon” has appeared in most of the American and then world media. The American authorities talked about the violation of the sovereignty of their territory and possible intelligence activities (the balloon flew, among others, over Montana, where one of the US air bases equipped with rocket launchers is located), and balloons of this type can be – according to experts – cheap and effective an intelligence tool. The flight of the balloon was also condemned by Canada, over whose territory it also flew. The Chinese, in turn, expressed regret over the situation and reported that it was a metrological balloon that had strayed off course. They expressed indignation at the behavior of the Americans who had shot down their stray balloon and demanded the return of their property, which, however, the Americans did not do. A similar balloon also appeared over Latin America. The latest media reports (“Reuters”), citing “information from an anonymous American official”, say that the balloon over the USA was actually flying over Hawaii (the famous Pearl Harbor base was located there, the attack on which started the Japanese-American war) and Guam, but it blew it over the mainland. It’s strong symbolism. As reported by the Americans, after fishing out the remains of the balloon from the ocean, it was about 60 m high and carried a load the size of a passenger plane. The Pentagon says it is “one hundred percent sure” that the Chinese balloon was a military vehicle and that the airship was used for espionage, not for gathering benign civilian meteorological data. The Chinese did not remain in debt and also accused the US of flying at least 10 balloons last year, also over Tibet and Xinjiang. China was also condemned by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, warning of “an intensification of intelligence activities by China and Russia”, and Japan said that Chinese balloons also flew over its country. This type of balloons has also reportedly appeared over Romania, and the remains of a Chinese balloon in its waters have also recently been found by Taiwan itself.

There are no cases

What follows from the above situation? In order to assess this, one has to look at the context in which it took place. As Fr. Bronisław Bozowski – “there are no coincidences, there are only signs”. So why this balloon over the American sky? Who is behind this and how to assess the reactions and effects of this event? The balloon was unmistakably Chinese and appeared over the US sky just days before the scheduled visit of Secretary of State Anton Blinken, the highest-ranking US visitor to visit China in recent years. It is possible that someone on the Chinese or American side simply did not want this visit, and it was supposed to be the next step in the temporary US-Chinese thaw after the recent meeting between President Joe Biden and Xi Jinping in Bali. In China in March, the so-called The Double Session, i.e. the key meetings of the Chinese main advisory body and the facade parliament, which is to be approved by the executive authorities (prime minister, ministers), and a soft attitude towards the US is not in favor of Xi’s image. In the US, on the other hand, President Biden has hawks from the Republican Party, who take a tougher stance on the issue of “solving the China question”. The issue of decisive action against China definitely unites the American political class, in contrast to the continued support of Ukraine in the war with Russia, which has many opponents on the mainly Republican side. However, another factor has emerged – the recent economic opening of China, the abandonment of the “Zero-covid” policy and the intensification of the Chinese diplomatic offensive aimed at European leaders. China was recently visited by Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the head of the European Council Charles Michel, and visits by the President of France and the Prime Minister of Italy are planned soon.

What is the game about?

Observing Chinese-American relations, it is clear that this situation and China’s return to the game as a “normal country” is not entirely in the interests of the Americans, whose goal is to isolate China and build a broad anti-Chinese coalition. Before Blinken’s planned visit, information about China’s military support for Russia appeared in the American media. It was supposed to consist in the sale by Chinese state-owned companies of bulletproof vests and helmets of the local army. The Americans also added to the sanctions list one of the Chinese companies in the space sector – Spacety, accused of providing the Wagner Group with satellite images of Ukraine. The American authorities announced that they were “investigating whether the Chinese authorities are aware of this support”, trying to put pressure on Beijing and positioning China as a military ally of Vladimir Putin. At the same time, American export sanctions regarding the latest technologies to China are being tightened, which were largely supported by Japan and the Netherlands, which are world leaders in the field of semiconductors. These are restrictions that will hit the Chinese tech sector hard. The fact is that China rhetorically supports Russia, with whom it shares a similar vision of the world order, in which the United States would play a lesser role. China’s attitude towards Russia, however, does not result from sympathy for Russia or dislike of Ukraine, but from the fact that Putin is de facto fighting the US. The situation of Russia’s weakening, which is gradually falling into Chinese hands economically, and the US’s involvement in Europe, not in the Pacific, is simply convenient for the pragmatic Chinese. China, however, avoids military support because it does not want to fall under Western sanctions, which would be strongly felt for its economy, which is strongly integrated with the world. The American interest is different. Positioning China as Russia’s partner and military ally strengthens the American narrative of autocracy versus democracies and isolates China in the Western world. This is where the game is.

Chinese test

We do not know one hundred percent the origin of the appearance of the Chinese balloon over America. However, if this is a Chinese provocation in the context of American actions towards China and the situation inside the Chinese power camp, which is highly probable, the Chinese’s goal could be to cause chaos, uncertainty, to show their own position, to examine the US reaction and to show the “offensive” attitude of the Americans to the world. The balloon issue was addressed by President Biden himself in his State of the Union address, in which he pledged to “protect the country.” He had previously been criticized by Republicans for shooting down the balloon too late, which was expected of him by many Americans. At the same time, he later stated in the media that the Chinese balloon did not harm relations with China and did not pose a serious security threat. Chinese actions in a special resolution were also condemned by congressmen, and Laura Rosenberger said goodbye to the position of Biden’s chief adviser on China and Taiwan, which was, however, according to the White House, a decision planned before the balloon incident. The United States blacklisted six Chinese entities that the Americans believed were linked to Beijing’s aviation programs, to which China responded with similar actions It seems that this time the American-Chinese spectacle did not end tragically, but there is certainly more to come and subsequent acts.

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