Comment | There is a diplomatic crisis at hand: the next few days will decide how bad

A further escalation of the situation would not benefit either China or the United States, writes Elina Väntönen, HS’s Washington correspondent.


Several The journey of a Chinese “spy ball” that had been hovering in US airspace for days ended on Saturday when the US shot it down.

At the same time, the struggle between the two superpowers swam into the homes of Americans in an extraordinary way. It was watched almost in real time as an F-22 fighter destroyed the ball with a missile off South Carolina. Eyewitnesses shared their experiences on news channels throughout the day.

President Joe Biden walked in to take responsibility for the decision himself.

“I told the Pentagon on Wednesday to shoot it down as soon as possible,” Biden told reporters wearing his pilot glasses. That in itself was a message to China: the voice was the president himself, no one else.

With his statement, Biden also dodged criticism for delaying it. Last week, there were shouts from both Republicans and Democrats, when the ball was allowed to fly freely over the states.

Biden said he asked for the ball to be destroyed as soon as it was possible to do so without posing a threat to the American people. The Pentagon thought it was safest to wait until the ball had made it over the sea, because parts falling to the ground could have caused damage.

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It was also hoped that the equipment would be better preserved for research after falling into the sea.

To the case there are still several open questions.

Was it a spy ball for sure? What was China really aiming for? Was it just a provocation? What if it was an accident?

Perhaps China just wanted to test the US reaction? According to expert estimates, it would have had more sophisticated air reconnaissance technology at its disposal.

Regardless of the answer, it is clear that a diplomatic crisis is at hand. The next few days will decide how bad.

Even at the beginning of the week, China appeared calm and said that it was a civil aircraft mainly used for meteorological research, which accidentally ended up in the wrong place.

After the shooting down was revealed, the voices got louder. China stuck to its original explanation, and at the same time accused the United States of overreacting and violating the international rules of the game.

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“China reserves the right to take further action,” the statement said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken decided earlier in the week to postpone his visit to China because of the conflict.

Stateside there is a lively political debate ahead about whether Biden acted quickly enough – and whether the United States’ China policy has been the subject of enough attention at all.

Biden has long wanted to focus his foreign policy on Asia, but the war in Ukraine changed his priorities. In the eyes of the president, the United States is competing with China to see who will emerge as the winner of the 21st century.

To stem China’s growing military power, the United States has increased its presence in the Pacific. China believesthat the United States is building an “Asian NATO” against China, because the United States has strengthened its relationship with several Asian countries and supports Taiwan even more strongly.

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At the end of last year, the United States too ordered significant restrictions on the export of the technology needed to manufacture microchips. Biden too wants to return the chip industry to the United States so that it is not held “hostage” by China or other countries.

The spy ball Biden didn’t really have a choice.

What kind of signal would it be if you could be in US airspace for days without any consequences – especially if there is reason to suspect intelligence purposes?

The expert assessments in the United States were quite expected on Saturday, even laconic. Former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Daniel Russell summarized his thoughts for The Wall Street Journal as follows:

“Basically, it’s always worrying when nuclear weapon states start shooting down each other’s surveillance equipment.”

That’s how it is.

On the other hand, neither the United States nor China have the desire to frantically escalate the situation. The United States has already announced that a new date is being sought for Blinken’s postponed visit.

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