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Foreign Policy

History Suggests the Balloon Incident Bodes Ill for Sino-American Relations in 2023

Feb 27, 2023

The recent balloon incident will likely ensure that Sino-American relations will remain poor for many months. The incident has already led Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to cancel his imminent visit to China. Blinken was supposed to meet with President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders to discuss how to manage the growing tensions between Beijing and Washington, including the recurring incidents that have bedeviled Sino-U.S. relations for decades. 

In May 1999, during the NATO air campaign against Serbia in the Kosovo War, two U.S. Air Force B-2 bombers launched five 2,000-pound joint direct attack munitions at a building in the Serbian capital. U.S. government analysts believed the complex housed the Serbian Federal Directorate for Supply and Procurement, which the CIA concluded was offering advanced military assets, such as ballistic missile parts, to states of proliferation concern such as Libya and Iraq—and then using the proceeds to fund the Serbian military’s campaign of aggression in Kosovo. As it turned out, the building contained the Chinese Embassy, which had relocated there in 1997—a move that was apparently not reflected in all the data available to all the overworked U.S. analysts pressured to find additional targets. 

The embassy bombing caused a major Sino-American crisis. The Chinese government suspended bilateral talks with Washington on international security issues, human rights, and other subjects of concern. PRC authorities also curtailed all Sino-U.S. military exchanges and stopped authorizing U.S. Navy port calls to China’s ports, including Hong Kong. In Beijing and other Chinese cities, mass protests broke out, some menacing U.S. diplomatic posts. At the United Nations headquarters in New York, the PRC delegation called an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss the incident. 

This crisis caught U.S. policymakers by surprise. Until this point, their focus had been on winning the Kosovo War and managing relations with NATO allies and Russia. By diverting attention away from the issue of curbing Serb atrocities, the Belgrade bombing now threatened to subvert U.S. efforts to secure wide-ranging international support for the U.S.-led NATO operation to coerce the Serbian military to withdraw from Kosovo. Chinese and Russian diplomats had already expressed unease with the operation and were calling for a rapid conclusion to the campaign. 

U.S. officials also underestimated the severity of the Chinese response to the bombing. The initial U.S. response was simply to hope that expressions of contrition by U.S. leaders would assuage Beijing, leading Chinese authorities to end the mass demonstrations. Secretary of Defense William Cohen and CIA Director George Tenet issued a joint statement calling the incident a targeting error, while Secretary of State Madeleine Albright hand-carried a letter of apology to the Chinese Embassy in Washington. President Bill Clinton also sent a letter to President Jiang Zemin, in which he expressed “apologies and sincere condolences for the pain and casualties brought about” by incident, Clinton tried to call Jiang over the Sino-U.S. paid communication line (“hot line”). The Chinese side initially declined the call. 

When the U.S. government subsequently sent a senior delegation to brief Beijing on the results of the official investigation, the PRC authorities rejected the U.S. explanation that the incident was an accident. The Foreign Ministry demanded that the United States punish those responsible, which the PRC media identified as possibly rogue elements within the U.S military and intelligence community who orchestrated the attack. 

Two years later, when Chinese and U.S. officials were still arguing over the Belgrade Embassy Bombing, a U.S. Navy EP-3E Aries II surveillance plane, on a reconnaissance flight over the South China Sea, collided with one of the two PLA Air Force F-8 II fighter jets that had flown to intercept and escort it. The PLA plane crashed into the ocean, killing the pilot, while the 24 crew members aboard the EP-3 made an emergency landing at a PLA airfield on Hainan Island. At first, U.S. officials reasoned that, since the collision was an accident, PRC authorities would quickly release the crew and initiate negotiations for the plane’s return. 

However, the Chinese side took a hard line. The PLA initially ignored U.S. inquiries about the status of the plane and crew. When China’s civilian authorities did acknowledge the plane’s whereabouts, they focused on the question of responsibility for the incident. President Jiang demanded that Washington accept full responsibility, apologize to the Chinese people, and end all surveillance flights off the Chinese coast. Many U.S. officials were reluctant to formally apologize for the collision since that language could imply financial or other culpability on the part of the United States. If anything, U.S. policymakers felt the Chinese were responsible for the mishap. 

Following several weeks of tense negotiations, the two sides issued a joint statement in which China agreed to return the crew and plane without requiring an official U.S. declaration of an apology for the collision. They also rescinded their demand for restrictions on future U.S. military activities near China, which they did however continue to protest. In what the Chinese termed the “Letter of the Two Sorries,” the United States in return released an unofficial note affirming that it was “very sorry” about the pilot’s loss and about the U.S. plane’s landing on Chinese territory without Beijing’s permission. Despite this apology, foreign and defense spokespeople for both governments continued to publicly bicker for months over who was to blame for the collision. Several years had to pass before Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld became the first senior U.S. defense official to visit China, in October 2015, following the collision. Partly due to the legacy of these and other incidents, the two countries’ national security communities view each other with mistrust to this day. 

We can also look to another incident that could shed light on the challenges of soon overcoming the recent Sino-U.S. balloon crisis. In 1960, the United States sent a U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union. After a Soviet missile shot it down, the United States reported, as the Chinese are doing now, that one of their civilian weather aircraft had gone off course while flying near the USSR. At that time, the Soviet authorities exploited the incident to embarrass the United States. They revealed that they had recovered not only the wreckage of the plane, replete with surveillance equipment, but also the pilot. They paraded both before the world media. The U-2 incident led to the cancellation of a scheduled summit meeting in Paris between Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, ending prospects for an improvement in bilateral relations for the remainder of the Eisenhower presidency.        

The Soviet era incident is especially relevant since, whereas the earlier Sino-American crises occurred when the relationship between China and the United States was in strategic flux, we are now clearly in an era of intense ideological, economic, and military rivalry between the two countries. Though the Chinese government seems to have become more effective in its information operations, trying to shape the narrative as soon as the balloon affair became public, the PLA military remains opaque about its plans and capabilities, deepening U.S. suspicions. 

Views about Chinese intentions have hardened throughout the American political establishment. Last week’s political debate in Washington focused on whether the U.S. military should have downed the Chinese balloon earlier rather than on other options. 

Now that the Pentagon has disclosed that several other suspicious Chinese balloons had entered U.S. airspace in previous years, the United States will likely study the recent balloon to develop means to ensure that the Pentagon can identify, and destroy, any future suspect Chinese spy balloons as soon as they arrive over the United States. 

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