A Memo and Balloon Help Media Inflate China War Hype

Photograph Source: Chase Doak – CC BY-SA 4.0

The shooting down of a Chinese balloon near Charleston (New York Times, 2/5/23) and an Air Force general’s prediction of a war with China (NBC, 1/27/23) have ignited media talk of the possibility of confrontation between the two nuclear powers. It’s scary stuff, indeed, but the media hype is dangerously overblown.

For Fox News, the balloon incident meant that the US has stepped closer to war with China, because China “is preparing its citizens for war” (2/4/23) and collecting information for a future confrontation (2/4/23), while the Biden administration’s failure to down the balloon while it hovered over Montana demonstrated to China that the US was weak (2/4/23). NBC (2/4/23) also called it a propaganda win for China, who along with the Wall Street Journal (2/4/23) said the event elevated tension between the US and China (NBC, 2/5/23). The Washington Examiner (2/4/23) called it a wake up call “to the communist country’s larger threat of war.” The New York Times (2/5/23) said that while spying between powers is common, “for pure gall, there was something different this time.”

With the bold headline “Low Blow,” the New York Post (2/5/23) ran this as a week-starting cover story: “Sen. Marco Rubio, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said…China intentionally flew a spy balloon over the United States to send the message that America is in ‘decline.’” CNN (2/6/23) said the “balloon crisis” – for most people such a term refers to the time their child lost their grip on a birthday party favor – was a “defining moment in the New Cold War,” while the New York Times (2/5/23) said the moment “seemed eerily reminiscent of the U-2 spy plane incident that provoked a tense confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union.”

And the Wall Street Journal editorial board (2/5/23) joined the chorus singing that it was good the US shot down the balloon, but waited too long to do it.

China’s government said this was a civilian weather craft, and it “protested against the US’ move to shoot down a Chinese civilian unmanned airship which made an unintended entry into the US airspace due to force majeure,” China’s Communist Party paper Global Times (2/5/23) reported. China says the balloon was a weather balloon, and the Global Times (2/4/23) said the “unexpected incident of the balloon gave some hawkish anti-China lawmakers a chance to attack China through the hype of ‘China spying’ and ‘China threat.’” (Note: China’s state and party media aren’t great sources for even reporting, but are good for insight into official thinking.)

The US Department of Defense is being somewhat guarded. A read-out of a background briefing (2/4/23) quotes one Pentagon official saying that the balloon was “a PRC surveillance balloon.” The official assessed that the balloon “did not pose a threat at any time to civilian air traffic because of the altitude of the balloon…[and] did not pose a military or kinetic threat to U.S. people or property on the ground.” The official said that the spying machine did “not likely to provide significant added — additive value over and above other PRC intel capabilities such as, you know, satellites in Low Earth Orbit, for example.”

Keep in mind that if Americans are anxious about an unmanned Chinese balloon, they’re just getting a taste of what China experiences. The US sent a naval destroyer past Chinese controlled islands last year (AP, 7/13/22) and the Chinese military confronted a similar US vessel in the same location a year before (AP, 7/12/21). The AP (3/21/22) even embedded two reporters aboard a US “Navy reconnaissance aircraft that flew near Chinese-held outposts in the South China Sea’s Spratly archipelago,” dramatically reporting on Chinese military build up in the area as well as multiple warnings “by Chinese callers that” the Navy plan had “illegally entered what they said was China’s territory and ordered the plane to move away.”

It’s easy to forget that two decades ago, a US spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter near Hainan Island, killing the Chinese pilot and leading to the brief detention of the US crew by the Chinese (New York Times, 4/11/01). If somehow that incident didn’t lead to World War III, it’s hard to believe a stray balloon would.

This recent balloon incident over the US isn’t even new – similar incidents occurred three times during the Trump administration, although they didn’t result in wall-to-wall news coverage and a shooting-down of the craft (Independent, 2/5/23). Last summer, Politico (7/5/22) reported that the US was looking at high-altitude balloons for surveillance, saying “Over the past two years, the Pentagon has spent about $3.8 million on balloon projects,” and that it “plans to spend $27.1 million in fiscal year 2023 to continue work on multiple efforts.”

In fact, the Financial Times (2/5/23) reported

By historic standards, the current episode looks like a relatively minor infraction. Between 2010 and 2012, China is believed to have dismantled CIA operations within its borders — executing at least a dozen US sources. In 2015, it was announced that China had successfully hacked America’s Office of Personnel Management, gaining access to the personal data of over 4mn current and former federal government employees.

The balloon spectacle has certainly entranced people, as the Financial Times said “progress of the balloon from Alaska through Canada and down past Montana has a certain Hollywood quality.” But it also came after NBC broke that Air Force General Mike Minihan, in charge  of Air Mobility Command, said in a memo that “I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me [we] will fight in 2025,” referring to China. NBC said that Minihan figured that because of presidential elections in Taiwan and the US in 2024, America “will be ‘distracted,’ and Chinese President Xi Jinping will have an opportunity to move on Taiwan.”

Details of the haunting memo quickly made headlines in the US and in Asia – Washington Post (1/27/23), Wall Street Journal (1/29/23), CNN (2/2/23), New York Post, (1/28/23), Japan Times (1/29/23), Reuters (1/28/23), Scripps News (1/30/23), UPI (1/28/23), Taipei Times (1/29/23), Nikkei (1/29/23).

But did the Minihan memo – which really told airmen simply to be ready for anything – actually deserve such intense media play? After all, he is but one general among many. As the man in charge of mid-flight refueling, it’s not clear the military’s chief gas station attendant should have the last word on the subject.

It certainly raised eyebrows on both sides of the Strait. The Global Times (1/28/23) called the memo “a reckless and provocative hyping of ‘China threats,’ which would inflame tensions and deepen strategic mistrust between the US and China when ties are already at a low ebb.” The paper saw several motivations for the Minihan memo, including the belief “that the US intends on using such military leverage for more gains in the bilateral discussions” between China and the US, and that “hyping the ‘threats’ posed by China’s military, the US general is probably trying to get more military spending for his command.”

In Taiwan, the Minihan memo gave the Taipei Times editorial board (1/31/23) the chance to call for more military cooperation between Taiwan and the US, saying, “The US should seek to help Taiwan improve its military self-reliance …or station a contingent of US troops in the nation,” adding that, alternatively, “US naval vessels could make regular ports of call in Taiwan.”

But the Pentagon’s top leadership isn’t taking Minihan’s statement too seriously. Military.com (1/31/23) said that Minihan “has been known for his loud, proud and high-energy public persona” and that while many “lawmakers have praised his comments, the memo was seen as a step too far by some airmen who serve under him at Air Mobility Command, and his speculative timeline for conflict with China has been deemed dangerous by national security experts.” Top Pentagon officials distanced themselves from the Minihan memo (Inside Defense, 1/30/23).

US state broadcaster Voice of America (1/30/23) said the memo “offers no evidence for his prediction of war…other than a vague assertion” and that “Minihan’s comments appear to contradict statements by senior officials in the Biden administration, including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.” Another US state broadcaster, Radio Free Asia, said (1/30/23) “Taiwanese analysts” called Minihan’s statement “a ‘worst-case scenario’ that so far remains unlikely.”

The fact that Max Boot, one of the most hawkish militarists to opine regularly at the Washington Post, dismissed (2/6/23) hysteria around the balloon as “anti-Chinese paranoia” is telling enough.

And yet, this comes after a year of propaganda pieces in the press itching for war. Time (2/27/22) said that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shouldn’t distract the US military from China: “A missile used in Europe can’t be used in Asia, and a bomber lost over Europe will take years to be replaced.” By contrast, Foreign Policy (2/18/22) said the US should get ready to fight both China and Russia, both of which are nuclear powers.

War between the two powers is always possible but unlikely – given the human and economic devastation such a war could have, there’s little motivation on either side to bring about “the big one.” But the media feed on fear and hype, and with the more conservative outlets, there’s certainly a motivation to exploit the news to push the US to be more aggressive against China, which the right sees as a dangerous, growing rival to US economic and military power. Either way, media attempts to raise America’s collective blood pressure about a war with China are overstated, at best.