China’s “Drifting Balloon” Diplomacy

According to BBC, a Chinese balloon was shot down by a US fighter jet near South Carolina earlier this month. China denied that the balloon was related to any espionage activities, stating that it was merely a weather-monitoring airship that had drifted off course.

Drifting Balloon

The sensors on the Chinese “spy balloon” that was shot down by a US fighter jet near South Carolina earlier this month were recovered from the Atlantic on Monday (Feb. 13) and are being analyzed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The US claims that the items were used to monitor sensitive military locations.

Since the initial shooting down of high-altitude flying objects on Feb. 4, US fighter jets have shot down three more high-altitude flying objects – over Alaska, the Yukon region of Canada, and over Lake Huron on the US-Canada border.

At a routine press conference on Tuesday (Feb. 14), Kirby said that it was difficult to determine the purpose or origin of the three other objects that were destroyed over Alaska, Canada, and Michigan last weekend before the debris was found and analyzed.

The White House said there was no indication that the three objects shot down from the air last weekend were related to so-called Chinese spying activities. White House spokesman John Kirby said that the objects “may be related to commercial or research entities and therefore are benign.”

US and Canadian officials said no debris from the three downed flying objects had been recovered. In addition, China’s foreign ministry earlier accused the US of “overreacting.”

The search team found “important debris,” including “priority sensors and electronic devices,” at the site on the South Carolina coast, according to Northern Command. Military officials said most of the structure was also found on the South Carolina coast on Monday. According to US media reports, the Chinese balloon has been tracked by US intelligence agencies since it was launched from a base on Hainan Island earlier this month.

US officials say the high-altitude balloon came from China and was used for monitoring, but China says it was a weather monitoring airship that had gone off course.

According to CBS News, US officials said that shortly after takeoff, the balloon drifted towards Guam and the Hawaiian Islands, then moved north towards Alaska. CBS also reported that debris recovered from the ocean included a balloon antenna measuring about 9 to 12 meters.

Unnamed US officials said the balloon’s flight path suggests it may have been blown off course by the weather, but when the balloon reached the US mainland, it came back under Chinese control.

Why use a balloon instead of a spy satellite for surveillance?

Although spy satellites are becoming more and more accurate in collecting information, they have many shortcomings in anti-reconnaissance. First, satellites orbit the Earth in fixed orbits, so military facilities can avoid satellite surveillance; second, decoys can be used to confuse spy satellites by using false facilities; third, counter-reconnaissance tools such as interference and lasers can be used. Therefore, spy satellites are not necessarily effective.

High-altitude balloons can be unexpected, appearing in the area under surveillance and can collect more intelligence. However, the efficiency of this method is still questionable.

Accusations of stray balloons towards each other The Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that the balloon shot down by the US was a meteorological balloon, but the US insisted that it was a spy balloon. China has launched its propaganda machine, accusing the US of also sending stray balloons to China.

On February 13, the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that since January 2022, the US has illegally sent high-altitude balloons into Chinese airspace more than 10 times without approval from relevant Chinese departments.

If this is an infringement of national sovereignty, why did the Chinese Foreign Ministry not report it to the public in the past year, and why did the Ministry of National Defense not shoot down the spy balloons illegally infringing on China’s national sovereignty? Instead, they waited until the US shot down the Chinese balloon before presenting it to the public.

In addition, there is no relevant news about the research conducted on the balloons illegally sent by the US to China, or what their functions are.

Furthermore, there has recently been a growing enthusiasm on Chinese social media to search for high-altitude balloons, as if unknown balloons have been discovered in various places.

Balloons cause multiple flights to change landing locations in Shijiazhuang

The recent balloon incident has even affected China’s aviation safety. Several flights to Shijiazhuang, China were diverted to other locations on Thursday (February 16th). A spokesperson for the North China Regional Administration of Civil Aviation explained that the reason was related to the appearance of a balloon in the sky, and the situation has since returned to normal.

An operator at Shijiazhuang Zhengding International Airport said that the airspace was occupied from around 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. All flights that arrived during that time were diverted to other airports.

The North China Regional Administration of Civil Aviation duty officer stated that they had received feedback indicating an unidentified flying object, which was later identified as a balloon. The officer said they did not know the specific details about the balloon.

It is rare for a balloon to cause flights to change landing locations. The North China Regional Administration of Civil Aviation needs to investigate who released the balloon, in order to defend the country’s sovereignty and safety.

“Drifting balloons” is also a form of diplomacy?

Drifting balloons reflect the differences and lack of trust between China and the United States in many areas. The balloons are merely tools for intelligence gathering, and “drifting balloons” indicate that China and the United States are growing further apart in different circles of friends.

After discovering and shooting down the balloons, the United States launched a wave of intelligence-sharing with a group of allies to share information on whether they had detected Chinese spy balloons.

China did not back down and first defined the balloon as a meteorological airship that drifted to the United States due to external forces. The United States did not need to be so sensitive and should have used anti-aircraft guns to shoot down mosquitoes. At the same time, China quickly launched a domestic propaganda campaign, accusing the United States of causing trouble and releasing many spy balloons in return.

China’s main goal is to get closer to its several allies, including Russia, and together accuse the United States of being the world’s largest intelligence collector.

Through this intelligence-gathering method, “drifting balloons” successfully divided domestic perceptions and the enemy camp, and strengthened their own circle of friends.

However, the side effect is that it further concretized China’s proactive attitude towards intelligence, which will exacerbate the negative attitudes of many foreigners towards China.

The randomness of “drifting balloons”

Who would have thought that such an incident would happen when China and the United States were about to meet, and when Blinken was about to visit China? This shows that the competition between the two sides is like a powder keg, presenting a tense situation. Any small thing can instantly freeze the attitudes of both sides.

The substantive competition between China and the United States in various aspects is no longer reversible, especially in terms of structural aspects. The United States still has many allies with whom to share intelligence, while China seems to want to collect intelligence in unexpected ways.

“Drifting balloon” diplomacy may solidify the existing diplomatic circles of friends to a certain extent, but the image of “balloons” is relatively weak. Especially since our impression of balloons is usually festive or hot air balloons, it will not cause a significant negative impression. Therefore, the “drifting balloon” incident should pass quickly.

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