APB: The Balloon Is Up

During World War I, British forces sent up hot-air balloons to spy on advancing enemy forces. 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 yesterday 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.
  • Most importantly, the incident does not warrant postponement of Blinken’s visit.

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. In the balloon incident, the Chinese did apologize. That should have been sufficient to justify the trip, whose purpose is to reduce tensions and promote mutual understanding.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.

10 thoughts on “APB: The Balloon Is Up”

  1. Blinken should not have cancelled his visit to Beijing. He should have a meeting with China’s Foreign Minister to reduce tension between the US and China and between Taiwan and China. HIs trip to the Middle East was useless.

    1. He shouldn’t have cancelled it. But it too would have been useless. Blinken isn’t a diplomat.

      1. Agreed. His Chinese counterparts are probably relieved they don’t have to listen to his lectures.

        1. We can call Blinken a DINO, Diplomat In Name Only.
          If illegal immigrants enter the US via balloon, will they be shot down? During the Cold War, many East Germans escaped to West Germany via balloon.

  2. The US did not shoot down the Chinese jet over Hainan island, there was a collision and the jet was lost. Honestly if you have difficulty with simple facts I do wonder about the rest of what you write.

    1. Irrelevant, the U.S. military has no business even being in that part of the world. Your comment is just immoral support of the evil U.S. empire (not that I think highly of China either, but at least it doesn’t have its military near the U.S.).

  3. The U.S. obviously wants war with China just like it wanted the war with Russia. This balloon is just an excuse to cancel the meeting. If the U.S. really cared about the meeting, they would have held it regardless of the balloon.

  4. https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2003/02/20030205-1.html

    20 years ago today, Colin Powell told his lies to the UN on the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. We destroyed Iraq and piled up a million bodies. ISIS spring from its ruins.

    This is a good reminder why you should never listen to the lies of the military industrial complex again.

    They didn’t want to make the trip for diplomacy, and used the balloon to create this ridiculous hysteria and beat the drums for a war with China.

    1. Good point. Netanyahu is the Colin Powell of Israel and says Iran has plans to threaten world peace with those same non-existent WMD’s.

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