A lost opportunity: Spy-balloon saga

by Tayyaba Khurshid

WITH advance technology, states have adopted new means to defend their interests abroad, but this have also opened new avenues for crisis and conflict. On 4 February 2023 a balloon flying over Charlotte, North Carolina became a spoiler and caused a wrench in already tense US-China relations. According to Pentagon, the object of attention in the US media, public and politicians was a 200 feet tall Chinese surveillance balloon. The US shot down the balloon as it was floating above nuclear missile fields in Montana. These sorts of balloons have advanced systems that allow them to capture communication signals.

With sight of balloon, tension erupted and rhetorical skirmishes were observed between the United States and China over the possible interpretation of Balloon. On inspection of balloon, the US found out that the balloon has manoeuvrable surveillance system with a large scale of capabilities. The US considered it a violation of their sovereignty and breach of International law. Whereas China disapproved any such claim and called it a civilian airship used for civilian purposes.

What law says about air-space? The United Nations agency called International Civil Aviation Organization in its 1954 Convention mentions that every state has full control and sovereignty over the air-space above its territory. And hence any aircraft cannot fly over the states airspace without permission may it be for commercial purposes. The ICAO defines balloon as a non-power driven, un-manned, lighter than air aircraft system that takes a free-flight. Balloons and airships are considered air-craft under international law. Moreover, the other specific set standards also provide that a country should properly authorize and operate any balloon originating from its territory.

Moreover, it should communicate in advance about the launch and trajectory of its balloon to relevant air-traffic services to avoid any misadventure and surprise. Furthermore, if any such airship enters the territory of another country without informing, its operation must be terminated by the country whose sovereignty has been violated. China has not informed of the airship in advance which caused more mistrust and hence shooting of its spy-balloon by the US. The damage that balloon can cause to the US is another debate but the question is that how it has disturbed the already tense relation of both states and lost an upcoming opportunity of creation of détente.

A lost opportunity: Before the balloon was caught by the US, a diplomatic visit of the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing was planned. It was to be the highest level the US diplomatic visit to China since 2018 with intent to create a détente in US-China tense relationship after the positive meet-up of President Xi-Jinping and President Joe Biden in Bali in November 2022. After the balloon standoff the opportunity of both global powers to settle their issues amicably was lost as Antony Blinken cancelled the trip. He highlighted that after careful consultation with other agencies and partners it was decided that conditions were not conducive for a constructive visit at this time.

Although initially, China accepted that airship was from China but as per Chinese Foreign Ministry statement the airship was used for research purposes and it deviated far from its planned course and showed regret over its entry into US airspace due to force majeure. After the balloon was shot, the Chinese Foreign Minister Xie called it an overreaction and abusive use of force by Washington. The positive step taken by both sides was sidelined due to the balloon crisis.

Whether the Chinese balloon was sent intentionally for surveillance purpose or not, the balloon crisis indicate that before any experiment in the air-space, it’s the responsibility of the states to inform others of their action to avoid unanticipated and accidental reaction. In international politics, small acts have the potential to create amicable environment for cooperation and the small acts have also the potential to disrupt the relation between states in seconds. The competition between the two powers is on the rise and this competition has transformed into conflict. Even in the National Security Policy 2022, the US mentioned China as a threat to its interests in the Indo-Pacific. With such perception and mistrust, there are chances of miscalculation so both Beijing and Washington should be careful in dealing with such airships in the future.

Moreover, there is a dire need that two competing powers should establish communication channels in reaction to crisis. With the existing diplomatic channels, there must be crisis communication channels where the two militaries should stay in contact. Diplomacy and cooperation works in the presence of mutual trust which the two states lack at the moment. It is necessary that other states that perform research work with airships must issue prior notices to avoid mishap and misadventure in the future. As no equipment has been invented yet which can gauge intentions of states, hence to avoid such quagmire, revealing of intensions prior to dealing with such airships (that can change their determined path) is essential to avoid balloon like saga.

—The writer is a Researcher at Centre for International Strategic Studies AJK and M Phil Scholar at Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad.

Email: tayaba.khan127@gmail.com

This article was originally published in Pakistan Observer

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Center for International Strategic Studies AJK, King Abdullah Campus Chatter kalas Muzaffarabad, Azad Jammu and Kashmir