The Chinese balloon suspected of espionage no longer exists.
It was shot down this Saturday by the Pentagon when it began to fly over the waters of the Atlantic in the vicinity of the State of South Carolina.
Civil aviation authorities had suspended air traffic at three airports in the area to "assist the Department of Defense in a national security initiative."
But the "unacceptable" five-day incursion of the balloon through US airspace leaves a host of consequences.
It has precipitated the cancellation of the highly anticipated visit of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing.
It has once again highlighted the fragility of the complicated and tense relations between the two great powers.
And it has introduced a new element of contention in America's highly polarized domestic politics.
The supposedly spy balloon flew over North Carolina, on the country's east coast, this Saturday, after having followed a route from Montana, in the northwest.
Weather services were confident that the aircraft would reach the Atlantic and leave US airspace over the weekend.
“We are going to take care of him”, the president of the United States, Joe Biden, had promised this Saturday, answering with this single sentence a question from the journalists who accompanied him on a visit, scheduled at the last minute, to the city of Syracuse, in New York State.
He offered no further details, but preparations for the shootdown were already underway.
The Federal Aviation Authority, in charge of the control of civil airspace, issued a notice of closure of the Charleston International, Myrtle Beach International and Wilmington International airports in the States of South and North Carolina on Saturday.
The statement already pointed to the intention of the Department of Defense to shoot down the balloon when the device flew over the waters of the Atlantic and the risk to the surface population was reduced, which occurred shortly after, around 2:30 p.m. on the East Coast (8:30 p.m. in Spanish peninsular time).
China maintains that the balloon was merely a meteorological and scientific research device.
The United States strongly insists that its function was espionage.
There have already been other cases in the past that were never made public.
In addition, it was carrying surveillance equipment, and was "maneuverable," the Pentagon alleges.
Experts point out that, although it was not equipped with state-of-the-art technology, it could examine more closely and for a longer time the details on the ground of sensitive places.
But its value as a political signal is still "greater than any intelligence advantage" it can provide, according to Clayton Allen, of the Eurasia Group risk analysis group, in a note.
Allen believes that the intention of sending the balloon was not so much to spy, but to send Washington a signal of force.
The damage is already done.
Blinken's visit to Beijing should have served to underpin what seemed to be an incipient rapprochement between the two powers after the November meeting of their respective leaders, Biden and Xi Jinping, in Bali (Indonesia).
The US government intends to establish a minimum base of consensus in the most important geopolitical relationship in the world.
He wants to find ways to prevent economic, technological and diplomatic rivalry from escalating into something more dangerous, and to agree to collaboration in areas where the two countries need it, such as climate change or global public health.
David Shullman, director of The Global China Hub, an area of the Atlantic Council
and former intelligence analyst for East Asia, indicates by
that such a basis for agreement would strengthen "recently reopened communication channels against the storm winds that are already evident for this year around technological competition, economic policy and Taiwan”.
The two governments have tried to downplay the cancellation of the trip.
Beijing recalls that the visit had not been officially announced.
And the State Department insists that Blinken will move as soon as a new opportunity arises.
But the outlook for the coming months is not favourable.
In a few weeks, Beijing will focus all its attention on its annual legislative session, the meeting of the National People's Assembly, which in March will complete the process of renewing Xi Jinping's mandate as head of the country for a minimum of five more years.
And the United States will enter the middle of the electoral campaign: Biden is expected to announce this spring his candidacy for re-election in the 2024 presidential elections.
The Biden Administration also plans to ban the supply of any type of US technology to the Chinese giant Huawei, on which it has already imposed a range of sanctions.
This step would mean a sharp escalation in the technological rivalry between the two powers.
Washington has already added in recent days to the Netherlands and Japan - two key countries - to its measures to prohibit the sale to China of the machinery necessary for the manufacture of semiconductors.
To further complicate matters, in the halls of Congress in Washington it is assumed that the new Speaker of the House of Representatives, Republican Kevin McCarthy, wants to fulfill his campaign promise this spring: travel to Taiwan with a large entourage, to dwarf the visit of his predecessor, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, last August.
That tour motivated the fury of Beijing, which responded with unprecedented military maneuvers with live fire in waters close to the self-governing island, ideologically close to Washington and which China considers an inalienable part of its territory.
The Xi government has already issued a strong warning this week against a possible visit by McCarthy.
In relation to Taiwan, it only seems that the dark clouds on the horizon are going to increase.
Also this week, a memorandum from a senior US military commander, General Michael Minihan, was leaked to the press, in which he believed that China could invade the island in the next two years.
In addition, Beijing has been angered by the phone call from the new Czech head of state, Petr Pavel, to the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing Wen, the first from a president of a European Union country to the leader of the island.
Donald Trump: "Take him down"
The controversy around the globe has also spread to US domestic politics.
Immediately, after the incursion of the balloon was known on Thursday, some Republican voices demanded the demolition of the device and described the response of the Democratic government as soft.
Despite the fact that the Pentagon had ruled it out while it was flying over US soil, given the risk that the fragments would represent for the population on the ground, personalities such as former President Donald Trump clamored on social networks: "Shoot him down."
McCarthy has called for and obtained a meeting of the Group of Eight — the government and the leaders of both parties in the two Houses of Congress responsible for intelligence matters — to address the globe crisis.
Allen, an analyst at the Eurasia Group, believes that after the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives, "Congress's tough stance toward China could limit Biden's ability to prioritize a stable relationship with Beijing as the year progresses."
Given the closeness of the 2024 elections in a country where being intransigent against Beijing guarantees votes, it does not seem likely that things will change next year either.
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