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Face to face multi-lateral diplomacy is back. The band is getting back together, but the world has changed since the G7 last met.

Our species and our planet face grave threats and the West’s autocratic rivals have prospered and grown more powerful.

There is a huge amount at stake for those who want the world led by open, democratic, free societies.

COVID vaccines

G7 COVID

Coronavirus is the biggest challenge for the G7‘s first face-to-face summit since the pandemic broke out. Until the entire world is vaccinated, we all remain at risk of a new variant sending us back to square one.

Former British ambassador to the US who knows Joe Biden well, Sir Peter Westmacott, told Sky News the president and his allies know this is their number one priority.

“This virus is going to contaminate international business, travel, holiday making, unless we can eradicate it or pretty much eradicate it. It’s not good enough for one or two countries to do really well. So we have to work together on this, just like we have to work together if we’re going to save the planet,” he said.

And if the West fails to lead in vaccinating the world, its claim to global moral leadership could be fatally undermined.

Climate crisis

G7 climate

Prime Minister Boris Johnson says the world must apply the lessons learnt in the battle against COVID to tackling the second biggest challenge – climate change.

On the eve of the summit, America’s new president wrote that the US is “back in the chair on the issue of climate change” and “we have an opportunity to deliver ambitious progress that curbs the climate crisis”.

Economic recovery

G7 economy

The G7 needs to resuscitate a global economy weakened by the pandemic.

But even before the virus, millions were so disenchanted with the way things are run economically that they voted for populists like Donald Trump.

The G7 must convince them that the economic integration, globalisation and multilateral institutions that the West has worked so hard to build up are worth their mettle. Otherwise the populists will be back, maybe even Trump himself.

Sir Kim Darroch was British ambassador to the US.

He told Sky News that allies will remain nervous about that for some time to come, saying: “More people voted for Donald Trump [in 2020] than they did in 2016. So there is a way to go for them to be convinced that the American cause has been reset in a stable and consistent way for the foreseeable future.”

China

G7 China

China is a thorny issue the G7 knows it must handle carefully.

Its trampling of human rights in Hong Kong cannot be ignored. Likewise its treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang – genocidal, or near enough. And its bellicose statements about Taiwan.

If the G7 is serious about what it calls values-based diplomacy, it cannot turn a blind eye to any of these. But it can’t afford to alienate China either. It will be a tricky balancing act.

Former NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Sky News the G7 needs to be robust when it comes to the way China is behaving.

“An attack is not necessarily by tanks or aeroplanes,” he said. “On the contrary, you can use economic coercion as part of your aggressiveness. And that’s exactly what China is exercising.”

Mr Rasmussen suggests the free world applies an “all for one, one for all” approach to China’s economic bullying. That way Beijing might think twice about using its size and power to coerce smaller nations economically.

Superpower supremacy

G7

For some there’s nothing less at stake at this summit than who is going to run the world in the years ahead. Democracies or autocracies?

Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned the main challenge in the coming years will be the fight between autocracy and democracy, autocracy primarily represented by China and Russia, and to counter the advancing autocracies there’s the need to rally around basic democratic principles.

If that sounds a bit abstract, don’t underestimate how much that contest could effect us all. “It’s an existential question, it’s a question about who will set the global norms and standards in the future,” he argues.

Giving one example, Mr Rasmussen said: “You can use artificial intelligence to make our lives better and easier, but you can also use artificial intelligence to strengthen surveillance of your people, controlling your people. And if it’s Beijing who sets the international norms and standards for the use of artificial intelligence, semiconductors and data flows, etc, then we would undermine privacy and individual liberty. And that is what is at stake.”

Fortunately for the West, if it can get the individual challenges right, it has a better chance of winning the bigger battle, seeing off the threat from autocracies.

An alliance of democracies that can lead on COVID, lead on climate change and lead a global economic recovery will be a more appealing alternative to autocratic regimes in Moscow and Beijing – and more likely to reclaim its preeminent position. Failure will only strengthen Russia and China.

Hope for global action

G7 foreign aid

What happens in Cornwall will have an impact on all our lives.

The good news is this G7 is better placed than many before to achieve unity and success. Recent summits have been marred by Donald Trump’s impatience with the whole idea of western multilateral democracy.

Before that, the inclusion of Russia as part of the G8 group led inevitably to watered down compromise resolutions.

This G7 includes a reenergised America deeply committed to its principles, and the state of the world gives an urgency and potential for focus we have not seen in a long time.

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What are spy balloons and why could they play a key role in the future of aerial reconnaissance?

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What are spy balloons and why could they play a key role in the future of aerial reconnaissance?

In an era of orbital satellites so advanced that they are able to make out objects half the size of cars from space, a spy balloon might seem like a bit of a relic.

They were a prominent tool for reconnaissance during the Cold War and were even used in a more basic form for intelligence gathering in the Napoleonic Wars more than 200 years ago.

But security experts say the balloons are just the “tip of a revolution” in the development and use of new high-altitude surveillance craft, with the UK even investing millions in a project to develop spy balloons last year.

It comes as the US military on Friday said it was tracking a suspected Chinese spy balloon, described as being the size of three buses, that has been flying over northwestern America in recent days.

A high-altitude balloon floats over Billings in Montana but the Pentagon would not confirm whether it was the surveillance balloon
Image:
A high-altitude balloon floats over Billings in Montana

Read more:
Chinese spy balloon flying over US airspace, says Pentagon
Spy balloon over US is actually a ‘civilian airship’, says China

A senior defence official said the US has “very high confidence” it is a Chinese high-altitude balloon and was flying over sensitive sites to collect information, while China has not immediately denied the balloon belonged to them.

Beijing admitted that the balloon had come from China, but insisted it was a “civilian airship” that had strayed into American airspace and that it was for meteorological and other scientific research.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is postponing a high-profile visit to China which had been due to begin on Sunday.

What are spy balloons?

The devices are lightweight balloons, filled with gas, usually helium, and attached to a piece of spying equipment such as a long-range camera.

They can be launched from the ground and are sent up into the air where they can reach heights of between 60,000ft (18,000m) and 150,000ft (45,000m), above the flight paths of commercial aircraft in an area known as “near space”.

Once in the air, they travel using a mixture of air currents and pressurised air pockets, which can act as a form of steering.

Why are they still useful in the satellite era?

According to defence and security analyst Professor Michael Clarke, the biggest advantage of spy balloons over satellites are that they can study an area over a longer period of time.

Sky News' Defence Analyst Prof Michael Clarke
Image:
Professor Michael Clarke

“The advantage is they can stay in one place for a long time,” he told Sky News.

“Because of the way the Earth rotates, unless a satellite is over the Equator, you need three to five satellites going all the time to track the same spot.

“These balloons are also relatively cheap, and much easier to launch than a satellite.”

Will balloons continue to be used in future for spying?

Very much so, according to Professor Clarke.

Despite the wide use of satellite technology, countries including the UK are also focusing on the development and use of spycraft to operate in the upper atmosphere.

In August, it was announced the Ministry of Defence had agreed a £100m deal with US defence company Sierra Nevada to provide high-altitude unmanned balloons to be used for surveillance and reconnaissance.

Professor Clarke said: “(These balloons) are the very tip of the revolution for passive upper atmosphere aircraft.”

He said other defence firms, such as BAE, were working on ultralight solar-powered drones which are able to operate in the upper atmosphere and stay in place for up to 20 months.

Why have China used them now?

According to Professor Clarke, the use of these balloons, if indeed they were launched by China, will likely have been a message to the US following its decision to open new military bases in the Philippines.

“I think it’s a challenge,” he said.

“They (China) are signalling that if the US is going to come closer to them then they will be more aggressive with their surveillance.

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Could there be a US-China war?

Watch: Future Wars: Could there ever be a conflict between the US and China?

“It is also caused a political issue in the US now, because it will be seen as a sign of weakness not to shoot it down.

“This causes some embarrassment, but the US doesn’t need to respond.”

The balloon was spotted over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday – close to one of the US’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

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Mao Ning, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, says that those involved should be ‘cool-headed’

Military and defence leaders said they considered shooting the balloon out of the sky but decided against it due to the safety risk from falling debris.

Professor Clarke added: “I think the debris issue is a bit of an excuse. It was over one of the least densely populated areas of the US and if they needed to they could have asked everyone to stay inside.

“I don’t think they wanted to make it a bigger issue, because China are daring them to shoot it down and make it an international issue.”

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Chinese spy balloon: US sec of state Blinken speaks with senior Chinese official over cancelled visit

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Chinese spy balloon: US sec of state Blinken speaks with senior Chinese official over cancelled visit

US secretary of state Antony Blinken has spoken with a senior Chinese official about his postponed trip to the country.

US officials said Mr Blinken spoke to the Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Office Wang Yi today postponing the planned visit.

But the secretary of state “indicated he would plan to travel” to China “at the earliest opportunity when conditions allow”.

Officials also said they “noted” China’s statement of regret but said “the presence of this balloon in our airspace is a clear violation of our sovereignty, as well as international law, and it is unacceptable that this has occurred”.

The diplomatic wrangling comes after a Chinese surveillance balloon has been tracked by US intelligence in recent days.

In a press conference today, the US defence department has said the Chinese spy balloon is heading eastwards but poses “no physical or military threat” to civilians.

The Pentagon’s press secretary would not confirm the current location of the balloon, which is operating at around 60,000ft.

There is also no evidence of any nuclear or radioactive material on board but it has the ability to be manoeuvred, according to Brigadier General Pat Ryder.

The spy balloon's route from China over the Aleutian Islands, through Canada and into Montana
Image:
The spy balloon’s route from China over the Aleutian Islands, through Canada and into Montana

Watch:
Future Wars: Could there ever be a conflict between the US and China?

He also rejected Chinese claims that the balloon was in fact a “civilian airship” that had strayed into American airspace.

The US authorities said it now knows the object – spotted over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday, close to one of the US’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base – was a Chinese balloon flying over sensitive sites to collect information.

A map showing where the balloon was spotted and the US's Malmstrom Air Force Base
Image:
A map showing where the balloon was spotted and the US’s Malmstrom Air Force Base

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a high-profile visit to China which had been due to begin on Sunday.

Senior state department officials described the incident as a “clear violation of US sovereignty and international law” and said conditions were “not right at this moment” for Mr Blinken to travel.

Mr Blinken was prepared to depart for China tonight before the trip was postponed, Sky News understands.

He plans to travel “when conditions allow”, according to officials.

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Pentagon spokesman said that suspected Chinese spy balloon flying over the US has ‘violated international law’, adding that it doesn’t pose any physical threat for people on the ground.

The Foreign Ministry in Beijing admitted the balloon had come from China – but said it was for meteorological and other scientific research.

The Pentagon spokesperson said it is “monitoring the situation closely and will continue to review options”.

Read more:
What are spy balloons?

China responds to claims by the US that it has identified a Chinese 'surveillance balloon' over Montana
Image:
China responds to claims by the US that it has identified a Chinese ‘surveillance balloon’ over Montana

The balloon will probably remain over the US for a few days, the spokesperson added.

US officials also confirmed military intelligence had previously seen similar surveillance balloons elsewhere.

The object is believed to have flown over the Aleutian Islands, off the coast of Alaska, and through Canada before entering the US.

Military and defence leaders had considered shooting the balloon out of the sky but decided against it due to the safety risk from falling debris.

US defence secretary Lloyd Austin convened a meeting of senior military and defence leaders to review the threat profile of the balloon and possible responses, which were presented to US President Joe Biden on Wednesday.

President Biden, speaking at a White House conference about jobs earlier today, refused to answer questions on the topic.

The US has engaged Chinese officials “with urgency” and communicated the seriousness of the situation.

China and the US have experienced tensions of late, clashing over Taiwan and China’s human rights record and its military activity in the South China Sea.

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What are spy balloons and why could they play a key role in the future of aerial reconnaissance?

Published

on

By

Chinese spy balloon: US sec of state Blinken speaks with senior Chinese official over cancelled visit

In an era of orbital satellites so advanced that they are able to make out objects half the size of cars from space, a spy balloon might seem like a bit of a relic.

They were a prominent tool for reconnaissance during the Cold War and were even used in a more basic form for intelligence gathering in the Napoleonic Wars more than 200 years ago.

But security experts say the balloons are just the “tip of a revolution” in the development and use of new high-altitude surveillance craft, with the UK even investing millions in a project to develop spy balloons last year.

It comes as the US military on Friday said it was tracking a suspected Chinese spy balloon that has been flying over northwestern America in recent days.

A high-altitude balloon floats over Billings in Montana but the Pentagon would not confirm whether it was the surveillance balloon
Image:
A high-altitude balloon floats over Billings in Montana

Read more:
Chinese spy balloon flying over US airspace, says Pentagon
Spy balloon over US is actually a ‘civilian airship’, says China

A senior defence official said the US has “very high confidence” it is a Chinese high-altitude balloon and was flying over sensitive sites to collect information, while China has not immediately denied the balloon belonged to them.

Beijing admitted that the balloon had come from China, but insisted it was a “civilian airship” that had strayed into American airspace and that it was for meteorological and other scientific research.

What are spy balloons?

The devices are lightweight balloons, filled with gas, usually helium, and attached to a piece of spying equipment such as a long-range camera.

They can be launched from the ground and are sent up into the air where they can reach heights of between 60,000ft (18,000m) and 150,000ft (45,000m), above the flight paths of commercial aircraft in an area known as “near space”.

Once in the air, they travel using a mixture of air currents and pressurised air pockets, which can act as a form of steering.

Why are they still useful in the satellite era?

According to defence and security analyst Professor Michael Clarke, the biggest advantage of spy balloons over satellites are that they can study an area over a longer period of time.

Sky News' Defence Analyst Prof Michael Clarke
Image:
Professor Michael Clarke

“The advantage is they can stay in one place for a long time,” he told Sky News.

“Because of the way the Earth rotates, unless a satellite is over the Equator, you need three to five satellites going all the time to track the same spot.

“These balloons are also relatively cheap, and much easier to launch than a satellite.”

Will balloons continue to be used in future for spying?

Very much so, according to Professor Clarke.

Despite the wide use of satellite technology, countries including the UK are also focusing on the development and use of spycraft to operate in the upper atmosphere.

In August, it was announced the Ministry of Defence had agreed a £100m deal with US defence company Sierra Nevada to provide high-altitude unmanned balloons to be used for surveillance and reconnaissance.

Professor Clarke said: “(These balloons) are the very tip of the revolution for passive upper atmosphere aircraft.”

He said other defence firms, such as BAE, were working on ultralight solar-powered drones which are able to operate in the upper atmosphere and stay in place for up to 20 months.

Why have China used them now?

According to Professor Clarke, the use of these balloons, if indeed they were launched by China, will likely have been a message to the US following its decision to open new military bases in the Philippines.

“I think it’s a challenge,” he said.

“They (China) are signalling that if the US is going to come closer to them then they will be more aggressive with their surveillance.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

Could there be a US-China war?

Watch: Future Wars: Could there ever be a conflict between the US and China?

“It is also caused a political issue in the US now, because it will be seen as a sign of weakness not to shoot it down.

“This causes some embarrassment, but the US doesn’t need to respond.”

The balloon was spotted over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday – close to one of the US’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

Mao Ning, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, says that those involved should be ‘cool-headed’

Military and defence leaders said they considered shooting the balloon out of the sky but decided against it due to the safety risk from falling debris.

Professor Clarke added: “I think the debris issue is a bit of an excuse. It was over one of the least densely populated areas of the US and if they needed to they could have asked everyone to stay inside.

“I don’t think they wanted to make it a bigger issue, because China are daring them to shoot it down and make it an international issue.”

Spy balloon threatens efforts to ease US-China relations

Distrust between the Chinese and the Americans is as high as it’s been for decades.

An incident like this would serve to feed that distrust no matter when it happened, but coming, as it has, just days before Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s highly significant visit to Beijing could seriously undermine tentative efforts being made on both sides to try to halt any further deterioration in relations.

Mr Blinken is expected to land in Beijing on Sunday and had planned to meet his opposite number Qin Gang as well as Wang Yi, China’s highest ranking diplomat.

A huge amount of painstaking diplomatic effort will have gone into making such a visit possible – the fact it was happening at all is a progress of sorts.

In recent days there has even been suggestions Mr Blinken might meet with President Xi Jinping himself.

If so, he would be the first US secretary of state granted this level of access in five years and it would be a major sign both sides are serious about attempting to smooth over their deeply damaged relations.

The Chinese leader and US President Joe Biden both recognised when they met at the G20 summit late last year that they need to do more to ensure that their distrust and competition does not descend into conflict and confrontation.

This visit was a clear part of that effort. But mutual recognition that spiralling tensions aren’t a good thing is not the same thing as the active rebuilding of trust.

This incident will likely be seen by the Americans as flying in the face of both. And there is, perhaps, an awareness here in Beijing of just how much jeopardy this incident poses to those fledgling efforts.

Indeed, at a regular news conference in Beijing on Friday, there was a clear desire on the Chinese part to contain speculation.

Foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said China was “verifying” the situation and added: “I would like to emphasise that until the facts are clarified, speculation and hype will not be helpful to the proper resolution of the issue.”

Given the low ebb of current relations between the two, Mr Blinken’s visit was not expected to deliver any breakthroughs. It was being framed more as a chance for both sides to restate their positions and red lines and keep the channels of dialogue open.

It will likely never be known if this spy balloon was purposefully scheduled ahead of the visit or if it’s just unfortunate timing, but if it forces Mr Blinken to cancel, the ramifications for the longer term project of containing deteriorating relations could be very serious indeed.

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