It’s been about two weeks since a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon entered American airspace late last month. In that time China’s response has shifted from conciliatory to indignant, and now, as the fallout continues, to outright confrontational.
While China’s increasingly hardline stance plays to its domestic audience, it’s also served to expose the inconsistencies and inherent contradictions in Beijing’s messaging – severely damaging its credibility, analysts say.
On Monday, Beijing accused Washington of “illegally” flying high-altitude balloons over its airspace more than 10 times since last year, calling the US the “world’s largest surveillance empire.”
The claim – made without any detail or evidence – was swiftly denied by the White House, which described the allegation as “the latest example of China scrambling to do damage control.”
The accusation marks a notable escalation in China’s response, and stands in stark contrast to its initial attempt at crisis management. Beijing offered a rare expression of “regret” soon after the discovery of the balloon over Montana, claiming the device was a civilian research airship blown off course.
But the political and diplomatic repercussions have prevented the balloon incident from drawing to a close as quickly as Beijing might have hoped.
When it became apparent the controversy would continue to dominate US headlines and public attention, Beijing’s contrition turned to ire.
After American fighter jets shot down the balloon on February 4, China’s Foreign Ministry accused the US of “overreacting” and “seriously violating international practice.”
The following week, as American officials revealed more information on what they call the spy balloon and the vast surveillance program behind it, Chinese state media blamed the US for engaging in “political performance art” and “hyping up” the “China threat.”
Now, Beijing appears to be going on the offensive with its counter-claim about US balloon intrusion.
Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, described China’s claims as “a sort of one-upmanship tit-for-tat against Washington’s accusations.”
“It appears more like Beijing is trying to also portray itself as a victim of US surveillance, instead of being painted over the past week as an aggressor,” he said.
On Monday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson also accused the US of frequently sending warships and planes to carry out close-range reconnaissance against China, which the spokesman claimed amounted to a total of 657 times last year – and 64 times this January in the South China Sea.
Drew Thompson, a senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, called China’s latest tactic “a large case of what-aboutism.”
“They’re not addressing the gross violation of US sovereignty that occurred with the surveillance balloon over Montana. They are trying to see perhaps some sort of false equivalency but they’re struggling to do that. I think they’re largely signaling their own population to ensure that they’re not overly caught up in the contradiction of China’s position,” he said.
“And it’s been quite contradictory. And it’s largely directed towards the domestic audience, which is why I think it lacks credibility with the other countries.”
Thompson, a former US Defense Department official, said the US military does use balloons, both tethered and high-altitude, for surveillance, but they are “very careful” to make sure they do not go into other countries’ airspace unless it’s a cooperative operation.
The US has trained using balloons for surveillance with allies and partners, including with the Philippines in 2022 as part of their annual joint military exercises, according to Thompson.
“‘Everybody spies’ is a poorly considered trope that does not justify China’s intrusion in other countries’ airspace. How countries conduct surveillance and reconnaissance matters, just as respect for international law, and the Law of the Sea matters,” he said.
Sovereignty over the air
China did not provide any details of the alleged incursions of US balloons into its airspace – when and where they occurred, or whether it responded in any way at the time.
The accusation is also complicated by how China defines its airspace, especially given its contested territorial claims in the South China Sea, experts say.
A country’s sovereign airspace is the portion of the atmosphere that sits above its territory, including its territorial waters that extend 12 nautical miles from its land. Above the ocean beyond the 12 nautical mile limit is considered international airspace, where commercial and military aircraft – including balloons – are allowed to engage in overflight without seeking permission, said Donald Rothwell, a professor of international law at Australian National University.
But Koh, the military expert in Singapore, said Beijing doesn’t necessarily draw distinction between national airspace and international airspace in practice.
“In the past and till recently, the Chinese military had challenged foreign military aerial activities in the international airspace in such manner as though it’s national airspace,” he said, citing the 2001 collision between a US Navy spy plane with a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea as an example.
Koh, who specializes in maritime security and naval affairs in the Indo-Pacific, said existing Chinese official positions espoused on the contested South China Sea clusters, such as the Spratly Islands, did not explicitly highlight the status of the airspace over the claimed waters and terrestrial features, even though the airspace over Chinese-occupied features are claimed as national airspace.
“In recent years, the Chinese military has also been challenging foreign military aerial activities over the Spratlys, including those run by the Filipinos when they flew close to the Chinese-occupied outposts,” he said.
Conflicting island and maritime claims in the South China Sea can well extend into the skies, as what China defines as its airspace above the islands and waters it claims as its own may not be recognized by other countries, such as the United States.
China has also undertaken significant land reclamation and built at least seven artificial islands in the South China Sea. But according to international law, an artificial island does not give any airspace sovereignty, Rothwell said.
“One possible interpretation of what China has said is that the United States has launched surveillance balloons over and within the South China Sea – close to one of those artificial or disputed islands claimed by China, and China has identified those as examples of breaches of Chinese airspace,” Rothwell said. “But of course, the United States would come back and say: ‘Well, we actually don’t recognize Chinese sovereignty over these features.’”
In addition to existing territorial disputes, the definition of national airspace is also complicated by the fact that the upper limit of the sovereign airspace is not completely settled under international law.
In practice, it generally extends to the maximum height at which commercial and military aircraft operate, according to Rothwell. Concorde, a retired Franco-British supersonic airliner, operated at 60,000 feet (18,300 meters), setting a precedent for how high national airspace may extend to, he said.
The Chinese balloon was hovering at 60,000 feet when it was spotted in Montana, according to US officials, placing it squarely in US airspace. China did not clarify at what altitudes the alleged incursions of US balloons occurred.