APB: The Balloon is Up

            During World War I, British forces sent up hot-air balloons to spy on advancing enemy forces. Thus the expression, “the balloon is up.” In recent times, a number of countries, including the US and France, have launched data-gathering balloons. The Chinese military last year reported favorably on many uses for such balloons, including for surveillance, communication, weather information, and communication. The detection of a Chinese balloon hovering over Montana, where the US houses ICBMs, probably falls into the category of military surveillance, though the fact of the matter remains to be determined.

            To my mind, the US has overreacted to the discovery, postponing an important visit to Beijing by the secretary of state. Granted, a Chinese high-altitude balloon should not have been floating over US territory; as Secretary Blinken said, it violated sovereignty and international law. Still, there are mitigating circumstances, to wit:

  • This is not the first time Chinese balloons have appeared in US skies, without incident;
  • The US routinely deploys spy planes and satellites over Chinese territory;
  • The data presumably collected by the Chinese balloon may not be all that sensitive; China has far more sophisticated ways of acquiring military intelligence.
  • The incident draws attention away from recent provocative actions by the US and its Pacific allies, including increases in US forces in Guam and Okinawa, agreement with the Philippines to expand the US base network there, and Japan’s new strategic plan (see Post #362)–all focused on the China threat.

Even assuming the worst—that the Chinese balloon was for intelligence gathering and not (as Beijing claims) for weather reporting—the incident could and should have been treated as a diplomatic episode. We should recall other serious US-China encounters, such as the US shooting down of a Chinese jet over Hainan island, and the US bombing of a target in Serbia that turned out to be the Chinese embassy. Both those incidents resulted in loss of life by the Chinese, and consequent US apologies.

In all these incidents, the common thread is diplomacy. The job of diplomats is to reach an understanding that bad conduct will not be repeated, and that an incident is not an act of war. If US-China relations were positive today, the tension of the latest incident would not have stopped Blinken from going to Beijing. What the Chinese should have done was taken responsibility for the overflight of US territory and welcomed Blinken to discuss the matter. That should have been sufficient to justify the trip, whose purpose was to reduce tensions and promote mutual understanding. The incident was a lost opportunity to improve relations–lost, as some observers (and the Chinese) are now saying, because “Biden’s team worried that the incident would serve as more fodder for Republicans who believed the administration is weak on China . . . ” (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-02-04/from-china-to-big-sky-the-balloon-that-unnerved-the-white-house). That’s precisely how minor incidents become international crises.



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  2. Mel, the Chinese balloon certainly looks and smells like a bad red herring to me. I’m guessing the reason Blinken ducked the trip is because he didn’t want to be dressed down about the Philippines initiative while in Beijing, far away from his own media machine.

    1. I have no doubt that the Philippines agreement to add to US base access would be on the agenda. So would increased US military aid to Taiwan, additional US forces on Guam, and Japan’s national security strategy paper that indicates additional US forces on Okinawa.

  3. This article provides context and valuable history for understanding and de-emphasizing the significance of the Chinese reconnaissance balloon currently in US airspace. I find the argument on behalf of diplomatic engagement with China persuasive. One aspect of the cancellation of the Blinken visit that it would be helpful to include is the way in which prominent Republicans would have made partisan attacks on any discussions with the Chinese while the balloon was still in American airspace.

    1. Thanks, Paul. I subsequently updated the blog to include your point, based on Bloomberg reporting of interviews with administration insiders.

  4. I’ve been watching the “destruction” of China’s balloon. Thanks for nothin’, CNN: Y’all have made much ado about very little (Talk of war, among some Pentagon big shots, between the U.S. and China. Indeed!).

    Remember Francis Gary Powers and the U-2 incident? THAT was a real, potentially tragic, incident.

    1. I certainly agree with Mike. This episode could have been treated differently, as my blog indicates, but for the bipartisan hostility to China and (probably) the Pentagon’s opportunism. China’s top foreign affairs guy, Wang Yi, asked Blinken for calm and professionalism, but Wang should have known that politics drives situations such as this one.

      1. Dear Mel: Thanks for your support! One detail, though: Blinkin was unaware of the nature of the balloon, be it a harmless weather balloon which drifted off-course, or it was something more insidious.

        So Blinkn was right to “stall” for time in order to determine the nature of that balloon.

      2. At this moment I don’t think there has yet been an announcement of the balloon’s mission. And I’ve just read that US officials said the balloon’s Intel capabilities had been blocked early on.

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