Leave it to China to screw something up. Everything is ass backward there. Now this, a spy balloon that ended up moving over the United States. China says its not for spying, but no one really knows.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed a visit to Beijing in response to a suspected spy balloon over U.S. territory.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed a critical diplomatic visit to Beijing this weekend following the revelation of a Chinese surveillance balloon, the size of three buses, floating over Montana close to sensitive nuclear sites. The Biden administration says it is monitoring the balloon closely, has neutralized any intelligence threat it poses, and is considering how to bring it down, since there are concerns it could fall on inhabited areas.
High-altitude balloons might seem unimpressive compared with satellite imagery that can already pick out minute details from way up in the heavens. But balloons, as analyst William Kim pointed out last year, have several advantages over satellites. They’re cheap, they can last for months, they can loiter in place rather than following the predictable tracks of satellites, and they’re surprisingly hard to take down.
Previously, all of that was negated by one obvious factor: They were at the mercy of the wind. But new machine-learning techniques now allow balloons to use air currents to steer themselves in set directions, making the technology much more useful.
Although balloons are a powerful potential surveillance tool, it’s odd that Beijing would do something this provocative just before a key U.S. diplomatic trip, especially since China has been pushing to repair relations with the United States post-pandemic. China certainly has a strong interest in monitoring U.S. nuclear sites, and Washington has been closely tracking China’s own nuclear expansion. But the United States is also full of sensitive military sites of one kind or another, and an off-course balloon would be more likely than not to stray close to one.
It’s possible that this was a deliberate provocation by some anti-U.S. faction within the Chinese military or security state—perhaps in response to being weakened in the recent Chinese push for better relations with Washington. But it’s more likely that this was a simple blunder—that an existing surveillance program got detected or possibly even that the balloon wasn’t intended to enter U.S. territory at all.
It’s very likely that China has been using this technique for a while and that the United States was aware of it but diplomatically chose not to respond. At a briefing on Thursday evening, a U.S. Defense Department spokesperson confirmed that such intrusions have happened before: “It is not the first time that you had a balloon of this nature cross over the continental United States. It has happened a handful of other times over the past few years, to include before this administration.” The triggering factor for this incident seems to be that the balloon drifted low enough to be detectable by civilians, meaning that U.S. authorities had to respond.
How will China respond?
Beijing has said the balloon is a weather balloon that drifted off course, affected by the westerlies, and that it “regrets the unintentional entry” of the balloon into U.S. airspace. It’s very unlikely that it will switch positions on that—it’s hard for Beijing to admit fault publicly. It’s possible that there might be some behind-closed-doors admission or apology.
But it’s also easy to see how, from a Chinese perspective, the United States might look hypocritical here. After all, Washington and its allies have routinely used a range of surveillance techniques for decades to closely observe Chinese territory, from satellite imagery to undersea monitoring. That may already include spy balloons, which the Pentagon has been working on since at least 2020. U.S. experts have been thinking for years about the potential uses of near-space.
Calling off or postponing Blinken’s trip at the last moment could strengthen anti-U.S. hard-liners in the Chinese leadership, who will read this as showing that Washington wasn’t ever serious about trying to rebuild a working relationship. Even those more sympathetic toward U.S. diplomatic efforts may see this as a sign that Washington is trapped by domestic anti-China politics.
What happens next?
This is another confirmation that we’re in the early days of Cold War 2.0, where mutual surveillance was one of the tensest issues. Take the 1960 U-2 spy plane incident, in which the United States was caught in an embarrassing lie after the Soviets not only shot down a supposedly undetectable plane but captured its pilot alive and had him confess on national television. That came at a relatively amenable stage of U.S.-Soviet relations and scrapped efforts at disarmament talks. In an eerie echo of today, the United States, before the revelation of the pilot’s capture, claimed that the plane had been conducting meteorological work and had accidentally entered Soviet territory.
There’s no Chinese balloon pilot who can be produced here, but some of the consequences may depend on how the balloon is brought down. Balloons like this are surprisingly tough and often need explosive force to destroy, which could leave its nature usefully ambiguous. If the United States manages to down it and retrieve surveillance equipment that’s obviously for military—not meteorological—monitoring, however, things will become more embarrassing for Beijing.
Either way, this is fuel for the strong belief in Congress that China is a major threat to the United States. One U.S. official stated that Blinken’s visit was postponed, not canceled, and that Blinken didn’t want the balloon to dominate talks. That seems likely: Washington has a keen interest in reading the mood on the ground in China following the tumult of last year’s protests and reversals of its zero-COVID policies. But an already cold relationship between the world’s two largest powers just got a bit frostier.