In response to the U.S. takedown of a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the American East Coast, Beijing on Wednesday, February 15th, warned that measures against “U.S. entities” would be taken.
At a customary daily briefing, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin restated Beijing’s official position that the balloon was a “civilian unmanned airship,” the entry of which into U.S. airspace had been “purely an unintended, unexpected and isolated event caused by force majeure.”
According to Chinese authorities, the craft, whose purpose they continue to stress was to collect weather data, had accidentally blown off course. After a week-long eastward trajectory across North American airspace, on February 4th, an F-22 fighter jet brought it down with a missile, just off the South Carolina coast.
Since then, the U.S. military has carried out three more such shootdowns of as yet unidentified air vessels.
Lamenting the decision by U.S. authorities to use force against the first vessel, the only one of which Beijing claimed ownership, Wenbin said it was “a clear overreaction that seriously contravenes the spirit of international law and customary international practice.” The hostile act, he added, had “a grave impact on the efforts and progress made by China and the U.S. in stabilizing bilateral relations since the leaders’ [U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping] meeting in Bali.”
Wenbin went on to note that the incident had been used as “an excuse to impose illegal sanctions over Chinese companies and institutions,” a reference to a recent decision by the U.S. to sanction six Chinese companies tied to China’s ‘balloon program.’
Given Beijing’s opposition to this series of moves, Wenbin said it would “take countermeasures in accordance with law against relevant U.S. entities that have undermined China’s sovereignty and security.” The official provided no further details and chose not to identify the targets of such measures. He said that China, however, would “resolutely safeguard national sovereignty and its legitimate rights and interests.”
Following the incident, the U.S. House of Representatives voted unanimously to condemn China for its “brazen violation” of U.S. sovereignty and efforts to “deceive the international community through false claims about its intelligence collection campaigns.”
In addition, a much-anticipated visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, which many hoped would smooth things over between Washington and Beijing, was canceled. With China in ascendance, as it positions itself as a challenger to American dominance, the two hegemons have increasingly been at loggerheads over a broad range of issues—among them trade, human rights, Taiwan’s sovereignty, and China’s claim to the South China Sea.
With no sign of the diplomatic debacle abating, China has thrown Washington’s accusations of it being guilty of spying back in its face, claiming that during the past year, at least ten high-altitude balloons of U.S. origin have been flying over its Xinjiang and Tibet regions.
The White House has disputed these allegations. On Monday, Adrienne Watson, spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, tweeted: “Any claim that the U.S. government operates surveillance balloons over the PRC [People’s Republic of China] is false.”
Meanwhile, other U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific region are making accusatory remarks concerning Chinese intrusions. Japan, soon to become the U.S.’ principal military ally in the region (if it is not already) once its drive towards remilitarisation is complete, has complained of Chinese ‘spy balloons’ as well.
On Tuesday, Japan’s Defense Ministry said it “strongly suspects” that at least three flying objects spotted in its airspace since 2019 were, in fact, such ‘spy balloons.’