It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s a Chinese spy balloon.
The 200-foot tall balloon, described as a “high altitude surveillance balloon” by the Pentagon, was first spotted floating over Montana on Feb. 1, which triggered a flurry of reported sightings throughout the following days as the balloon made its way across the continental U.S. Its cross-country journey ended when the U.S. military shot it down over the Atlantic Ocean on Feb. 4, a week after it entered U.S. airspace in Alaska, according to U.S. military officials.
The curious incident of the Chinese spy balloon — which the Chinese government claimed was a civilian airship largely used for weather measurements that had floated off course — marks yet another bump in an already tumultuous relationship between the U.S. and China.
Dr. Chris McHorney, professor of political science, described U.S.-China relations as “complicated.” Both countries are trade superpowers with the two highest gross domestic products in the world, with the U.S. at $23.3 million and China at $17.7 million in 2021, according to the World Bank.
The two nations are important trade partners. The U.S. is the largest importer of goods from China as of 2020, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. In addition, China is the second largest foreign holder of U.S. treasury securities, holding $867.1 billion of treasury securities as of 2022, according to the Treasury. McHorney said this ownership of U.S. debt leads to more complications.
“Trade relations between China and the United States are very contentious as a result of numerous trade disputes, such as the theft of intellectual property by Chinese companies,” McHorney said. “With respect to national security issues, the relationship is hostile as China is emerging as a military rival to the U.S. in East Asia.”
Recent events aside from the surveillance balloon have exacerbated tensions. For example, friction over the future of Taiwan has increased, with speculation of a potential military conflict over the island swirling in recent months.
“Taiwan is a seemingly unresolvable issue as China and the U.S. have mutually exclusive goals for the future of this country,” McHorney said. “The Chinese government views Taiwan as a breakaway province that will inevitably be reintegrated back into China. The U.S. remains committed to protecting the sovereignty of Taiwan.”
McHorney said that issues related to COVID-19 also continue to cause concern, as investigations into the origin of the virus continue. He also pointed to the continued human rights violations carried out by the Chinese government through cultural genocide of the Uyghur population and the repression of the rights of Chinese citizens as points of contention for Americans who disagree with these actions.
Dylan Parry, sophomore political science major, said that while he is not excessively concerned about China right now, he would become concerned if China invaded Taiwan.
“My thoughts on the current relations with China are dicey,” Parry said. “The current geopolitical climate is uneasy in light of everything going on for the past year. The recent spy balloon debacle plays into that unease because it is a sincerely weird occurrence, primarily since the uptick in other reports of ‘things’ being shot down in American airspace since then. Regarding Taiwan and Ukraine, I think China is definitely watching the U.S.’ response to Russia, but I also think the Chinese support of Russia has been a bit too forward.”
Parry said he believes that while the U.S. needs China for manufacturing, he could favor limiting relations, especially given China’s human rights violations.
“China is a perfect example of one of these countries since they do not share democratic values nor our regard for human life and rights,” Parry said.
“I think we need to shift back to the traditional value of, dare I say, ‘America first.’ And no, I do not say this to quote Trump; I say this to reflect the views of the American Founders. Washington emphasizes in his Farewell Address how limited our contact with foreign countries should be: ‘The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is… to have with them as little political connection as possible…. Here let us stop.’”
For McHorney, the spy balloon incident was simply “an indicator of tenseness,” a symptom of a greater relationship issue between the two nations that does not seem to be going away any time soon.
“Relations between China and the U.S. will remain complicated for the foreseeable future as the sources of conflict appear to be unresolvable,” McHorney said. “China will continue to pursue regional military dominance and global economic power while the U.S. attempts to constrain the ambitions of the Chinese government.”