Some years ago in early 1988, a strange balloon caused a security scare as it crushed in the area of Mmopane. The military was called in to attend to the matter and a while later; the Department of Meteorological Services came upon the scene and claimed the defunct air vehicle and instruments as belonging to their counterparts in South Africa. It had drifted away from its course and it originated from Pretoria
The reason why this caused a security scare was for the fact that in the previous year, a large contingent of hot air balloons had violated Botswana’s airspace as they flew in a flotilla formation from Petersburg to Windhoek in Namibia. These were just civilian vessels and harmless as according to Pik Botha, the South African foreign minister of the apartheid era. The instruments in the Mmopane balloon were duly identified as weather equipment in use internationally. The balloon had apparently flown too high in the atmosphere and encountered extreme low pressure.
By the way technically speaking, the South Africans did not violate our airspace because the balloons were flying at almost 20 000 feet. At the time Botswana had contracted the South African government to superintend their skies because this country had no capability to do so. Our capabilities could only allow us to take care of our skies only up to 10 000 feet only.
So in short, this is not the first time a balloon has caused a stir. But there are so many questions that the Chinese government will need to answer in regard to this air vehicle that they termed a weather balloon. Regarding the fact that the Chinese only laid claim to the white balloon at the point where Americans had sighted it in their skies above them raises suspicion. If indeed it was a stray air vehicle, the Chinese should have reported it the moment it left their airspace.
The US Air Force pilots have ultimately brought down the balloon once it had past flying over their land mass and this was done as a safety precaution. The Chinese are furious over the action and they have released a statement stating that they “reserve the right to deal with similar situations.” It is only that the Chinese could not remain silent under these special circumstances. They still have to maintain the narrative that this item was completely harmless to the US security.
It is very unlikely that the US authorities will find anything of material substance to analyse once the pieces of the balloon are recovered from the sea. The Chinese are smart enough to know that a thorough scientific search is going to occur; obviously the data collecting devices were connected to a self-destructing fuse which would explode on any form of impact. By the way, through the aid of satellite technology, all the data has already been received in Beijing.
But the Americans will not leave this act of defiance unpunished. Most like they are looking in the direction of Huawei, the Chinese technology manufacturer which has had a few skirmishes with the US government before. With this incident, the Americans have every reason to distrust Huawei going forward. Blind sanctions are obviously coming the way of this company and its officials.
It will also be very interesting if the US officials find everything intact and with full evidence that this is a civilian weather balloon. It will be a hard situation to deal with and is likely to cause a serious diplomatic embarrassment. On the flip side of the same coin, if the US discovers critical spying equipment, the Chinese will disown the instruments and question why the US did the search alone. This is a difficult situation for the US and they have to tread carefully.
But what is China going to do in retaliation to the downing of their “weather balloon”? China’s priority over time has been to compete with the US economically and not militarily even though they are growing their military muscle. Even when poked in the eye by Nancy Pelosi who defiantly visited Taiwan in the face of Chinese objections, the Chinese did no flinch but maintained their calm and showed their objectivity in every sense.
The priority of the Chinese government is to rebuild and resuscitate an economy that has been battered by the Corona pandemic. Going to war with another superpower is not in their priority list. China has demonstrated that aggression is not their portion with the prevailing Russia-Ukraine War. They have not gone out to publicly declare their side even though their recent naval drill with Russia and South Africa says volumes.
What China has pursued in this conflict is to provide a stable market for Russian oil. They have not chosen to send missiles and other weaponry, something they have in abundance. But one wonders what is going to be China’s response or retaliation to the coming American sanctions. The sanctions are coming and there are no two ways about it.
The Chinese have tested the waters at the wrong time when President Joseph Biden wants to flex his muscles and prove to the American public that he is not a weakling. The run up to the war in Ukraine showed him to be a man who is indecisive as he was vacillating and hesitating on warning the Russians on their aggressive intensions as full evidence was on the amassing of their troops and military equipment on the border with Ukraine.
The Chinese have flown the spy balloon at the wrong time since the presidential elections are fast approaching. This time around, Biden will even respond to a passing kite from children playing in the school grounds. The reason why he came out to announce the downing of the balloon was for the purpose of earning personal political points. He will hardly delegate his responsibilities going forward as every moment of limelight is critical for his political survival.