A mysterious balloon in American airspace has caused new serious tensions between the United States and China: The US government accused Beijing of espionage and canceled a visit by Foreign Minister Antony Blinken to Beijing on Friday at practically the last minute.

After some hesitation, China admitted that it was a Chinese aircraft. However, the balloon is only used for scientific purposes and has deviated from its trajectory to the north-west of the USA. The US government, on the other hand, stuck to its assessment. She saw the action as a violation of US sovereignty and international law.

Incident puts additional strain on strained relationships

Blinken originally wanted to leave on Friday to hold talks with the Chinese leadership in Beijing. The discovery of the balloon – so shortly before the visit – was seen as a provocation in the USA. The incident puts additional strain on the already tense relations between the two powers.

The US Department of Defense made the discovery public on Thursday evening. Accordingly, the balloon was already sighted on Wednesday over the state of Montana in the northwest. A senior Pentagon official said Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin rounded up the department’s leadership. President Joe Biden was also informed and requested military options.

Launching the balloon too dangerous

Launching the balloon was considered, the official said. F-22 fighter jets were also provisionally put on standby and air traffic in Montana’s largest city, Billings, was temporarily suspended. Because of the danger of falling debris, the decision was ultimately made not to destroy the balloon. However, various precautions have been taken to protect sensitive information.

According to the Wall Street Journal, 150 Minuteman III ICBMs equipped with nuclear warheads are stored at a US Air Force base in Montana. However, a balloon’s spy systems only provide “limited added value” compared to information that China can collect with satellites.

“We are currently assuming that this balloon only has a limited additional benefit for gathering information,” the Pentagon said. Similar incidents have happened in the past. This time, however, the balloon stayed longer than usual over the United States. It does not pose a military threat or danger to people on the ground. The balloon is also harmless to aircraft due to its extreme altitude. The Pentagon official said Beijing had been contacted through various channels. “We made it clear to them how seriously we take this matter.”

Beijing denies espionage allegations

The Chinese government initially warned against hasty speculation. Another explanation followed later: The Foreign Ministry in Beijing rejected the allegation of espionage, but admitted that the border had been crossed. It was a “civilian” Chinese airship for research purposes, primarily of a meteorological nature, which “deviated far from its planned course” due to strong westerly winds. “China regrets unexpected entry into US airspace due to force majeure.”

The US government was not satisfied with that, but canceled the trip to Beijing planned for the weekend – the first visit by a US Secretary of State since 2018. A senior Blinken official said Beijing’s regret was noted. However, this is a “clear violation of our sovereignty”. “It is unacceptable that this has happened.” In view of this, the circumstances for a visit were not given. Blinken wants to make up for the trip. The communication channels to Beijing remained open.

Pentagon disagrees with Beijing

The US government stands by its allegations of espionage against Beijing. “We know it’s a surveillance balloon,” US Defense Department spokesman Pat Ryder said in Washington. Ryder stressed that he could not give any details, but made it clear that the Pentagon still stood by its assessment of the incident. The balloon is also very manoeuvrable. It is assumed that it will fly over US territory for several more days.

Ryder said the balloon is currently more than 11 miles (18 kilometers) high, well above the range of civilian air travel. It is heading east and is currently flying over the central United States. He could not give any further details. When asked if the public had a right to more specific information about the location of the flying object, Ryder said people could look up at the sky and see the balloon for themselves. He did not comment on the size of the balloon. However, the fact that it can be seen with the naked eye despite its enormous height indicates that it is of considerable proportions.

Relations between Beijing and Washington severely strained

Relations between the US and China are already very strained. Issues of contention include China’s backing for Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, Chinese threats against Taiwan, Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea, the trade war, and US high-tech export controls. China accuses the US of trying to curb its rise and of pursuing a new Cold War.

Loud demands for a tougher approach came from the ranks of the US Republicans. The Republican chairman of the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, rated the balloon action as “a brazen disregard for US sovereignty”. Biden should not remain silent on this.

Former Pentagon chief Mark Esper, who was in office under Republican President Donald Trump, spoke of a “brazen action”. Esper told CNN: “The Chinese have been spying on us for decades.” At the political level, there must be a clear announcement that the USA will not put up with this. “You have to treat the Chinese as equals,” he warned. “They only respond to determination.”

The United Nations warn of further increasing tensions between the great powers. “We would not want such a situation in which tensions between Washington and Beijing increase,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in New York. Given the global leadership of both countries, it is up to them to do everything in their power to resolve the situation. However, the United Nations had no information of its own about the incident.