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‘Countries spy on each other all the time’: Analysts on suspected Chinese spy balloon that flew across US

‘Countries spy on each other all the time’: Analysts on suspected Chinese spy balloon that flew across US

A suspected Chinese spy balloon. (Photo: AFP/Chase Doak)

It is not a surprise that countries spy on one another, analysts said on Monday (Feb 6), a day after the United States shot down a suspected Chinese intelligence gathering balloon.

“Countries spy on each other all the time”, particularly great power adversaries, said Assistant Professor Evan Resnick from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“The US and China are engaged in espionage against one another across multiple means and techniques … there's a lot of pearl-clutching going on right now on the part of the US government, but everybody knows that this is a routine matter,” he told CNA’s Asia Now.

“The problem is when you catch the other side doing it red-handed, you have to sort of exploit it for all that you can in propagandistic terms.”

Dr Scott Kennedy, an analyst from an American think tank, said he trusts US reports that the balloon was for intelligence gathering. He added that he believes it is not a lone balloon, but part of a fleet of balloons with others flying across different regions.

Washington “had to put their foot down and make a big fuss over this” because it decided it wanted to try to stop such intelligence gathering, said Dr Kennedy, senior adviser and trustee chair in Chinese Business and Economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Both sides engage in intelligence gathering of the other through many different means. That's not a surprise, but there are rules of the road and how that should occur, and I think the US is trying to clarify what those rules are now,” he told CNA’s Asia First.

The presence of the balloon, which was called “a “clear violation” of the country's sovereignty, led to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponing a long-anticipated visit to China.

Beijing, however, said it was an "airship" used for civilian meteorological and other scientific purposes that had strayed into US airspace.


Domestic politics are driving the US response, Asst Prof Resnick said.

“(Joe) Biden does not want to look weak in front of a newly-elected Republican majority in the House that has been criticising him relentlessly,” he said, adding that the US president does not want to become a “pincushion” that would jeopardise his reelection campaign.

The US decision to shoot down the balloon has "seriously impacted and damaged" relations between the two countries, China's foreign ministry said on Monday.

“Given that the relationship is just so acrimonious, it's so hostile at this stage and is quite volatile, any minor incident has the capacity to escalate into conflict that neither side really wants,” Asst Prof Resnick said.

The underlying dynamic between the two countries is that the US has been the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific region since the end of World War II and is facing a close competitor in China for the first time, he said.

“All the stuff that we've been seeing in the last few years can be attributed to this underlying power dynamic or power transition between the two,” he said.

“It's not good. It's going to be difficult for these two countries to stay at peace but there are lots of important reasons for them to do so, not least of which is the fact that they're both nuclear armed and the two biggest economies in the world.”


While it would have been “unlikely that there would be a miraculous resurrection of bilateral ties between the two countries as a result of Blinken's visit”, it was a missed opportunity, said Asst Prof Resnick.

“Given that the relationship has become so precarious in recent months and years, it probably would have been for the good for Blinken to have made the trip and potentially met with the Chinese president to at least impose some stabilisation on a rapidly eroding relationship,” he said.

Dr Kennedy stressed the need for the two sides to go ahead with the meeting, which would come more than five years after the last visit to China by a US Secretary of State.

Ideally, the meeting should take place before China’s national legislature convenes on Mar 5, as there are several issues the two countries need to discuss, including Taiwan and the South China Sea.

If the meeting does not happen, it would be a “huge setback”, said Dr Kennedy

“Let's see if Beijing doesn't overreact to the American reaction. Let's also see how the Congress responds.”


Dr Kennedy noted that despite the dwindling relations between the two countries, they have common interests in trying to surveil new pathogens, making sure that potential new pandemics do not go global, and that carbon emissions are kept low.

“We want to avoid wars as well. We want to make trade mutually beneficial. The first thing is: we got to sit down and get together,” he said, adding that there needs to be much more regular communication at the staff level,” he said.

The most important factor between the two countries is that neither wants to engage in an all-out war against the other given that both powers are nuclear armed, said Asst Prof Resnick.

“They both have a shared interest in keeping crises tamped down. They also have shared interests and making sure that the global economy doesn't implode, especially in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic,” he said.

“There are lots of reasons … for the relationship not to get much, much worse than it already has been. There's lots of avenues for the two countries to cooperate,” he said.

Source: CNA/ja(dn)


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