• Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

99 Spy Balloons

ByJoe Frater

Feb 24, 2023
Spy Balloon

The plot thickens. At least four foreign objects have now been shot down over the US. The Chinese are livid. The Americans are baffled. No one seems to know exactly what’s going on.

While it’s possible that China’s President, Xi Jinping, was simply paying homage to Nena’s Europop classic, ’99 Red Balloons’, politicians are now having some uncomfortable conversations about airspace violations and international surveillance. During a time of global unrest, these disputes add even more confusion to an already chaotic situation.

The core of the issue seems not to be the confidential information potentially gleaned by these balloons but rather the incursion into American airspace. Trespassing into another country’s skies is akin to landing on their coasts. If this violation is simply tolerated by the US, there will inevitably be more intrusions just like this one. That said, China cannot be pushed around easily. They are a formidable global superpower, so the States cannot resort to their usual imperious strategies.

US President Joe Biden offered “no apologies” for his decision to blow the balloons out of the sky. These are firm words, but firmness is necessary in this case. For the sake of stability, clear boundaries need to be established. Where surveillance is an uncomfortable inevitability of modern politics, floating actual hardware into a rival state before denying responsibility is a surprising step beyond the norm.

What the US-China correspondent, Demetri Sevastopulo of the Financial Times solemnly calls “rising bilateral tension”, might be more aptly described as vicious bickering; but the stakes always seem to feel higher if both parties have massive nuclear stockpiles. Water fights tend to get a little tense when someone is holding a shotgun. Sensitivity is key, with the Chinese condemning Biden’s decision outright, it is essential that the situation is not allowed to worsen. Open communication and de-escalation are integral to the prevention of conflict. Numerous analysts have made bleak projections about the future of US-China relations, some even mentioning the sinister “W” word. 

It’s fair to say that the US often play the schoolyard bully when it comes to global politics, but China’s discourse around this particular issue has been evasive and, at times, unsettlingly dishonest. The entire debacle suffers from an absence of concrete facts. Most news outlets are running primarily on conjecture. With the FBI’s analysis of the wreckage, the truth should begin to emerge. But, as with every aspect of diplomacy, things are always more complicated than they should be.

The pentagon’s top China official, Michael Chase, is now making his way to Taiwan, hoping to detangle this complex situation. Face-to-face communication between diplomats for the first time since the sighting of the first balloon. This is a good and necessary step. If this kind of dialogue had been established at the start of this spat, then we likely wouldn’t be in this mess.

At least they’re talking to each other. And at least it’s not aliens.

Image Credit: “Kinesiska ballongincidenten 2023 -Chinese surveillance balloon over Billings in USA” by Chase Doak is licensed under CC BY 4.0.