The Case of the Chinese Balloon

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 initial 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 the 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 the 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 is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.