CRISIS MANAGEMENTWhat China’s Surveillance Balloon Says About U.S.-China Relations

By David Sacks

Published 7 February 2023

The question of what information the Chinese were trying to uncover using a balloon – when China’s many satellites could glean this same information – is intriguing. A far more important issue, however, is what this episode says about the ability, or more accurately inability, of Washington and Beijing to manage a future crisis. Worryingly, it appears that neither the United States nor China is prepared for a serious crisis.

On Saturday afternoon, a U.S. Air Force F-22 fighter jet fired one missile into a high-altitude Chinese surveillance balloon, sending it plunging into the Atlantic Ocean and capping a stretch where the world’s most important bilateral relationship was dominated by a slowly moving object crossing the United States.

The incident raises questions about the extent to which China has been employing these balloons – and in the process violating U.S. territorial airspace and sovereignty – and why it has been doing so when its satellites could glean this information. Far more important, however, is what this says about the ability, or more accurately inability, of Washington and Beijing to manage a future crisis.

The Biden administration’s decision to shoot down the balloon was the correct one. Unlike U.S. surveillance of China, which is conducted from international airspace and waters, this was a flagrant violation of U.S. sovereignty. It is hard to see how China, which stresses the inviolability of sovereignty more than any other country, would allow anything like this to be conducted in its airspace. China’s official explanation, that this was merely a civilian weather balloon that was blown off course and drifted over the United States, demonstrated its unwillingness to discuss the matter with any seriousness. The question of whether the balloon was able to collect any information of value is beside the point; far more important is demonstrating that these violations of sovereignty and international law will not stand.

Ultimately, this raises more fundamental questions about U.S.-China relations, revealing that neither side is prepared for a serious crisis. The potential for such a crisis, however, is growing more likely as the two clash over Taiwan, the East China Sea, South China Sea, and China’s support for Russia and North Korea. The stakes in this instance were relatively low, as China likely already had access to similar information on U.S. facilities from its constellation of low orbit satellites. From the U.S. perspective, it was more about protecting a principle than responding to a fundamentally destabilizing act. Yet this incident still dominated news coverage and led to a chorus of congressmen calling for the administration to immediately shoot the balloon down, providing the president with little decision space.