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Ballooning Paranoia: The China Threat Hits the Skies

Hysteria over balloons is a strange thing. Hot air balloons made their appearance during the Napoleonic era, where they served as delivery weapons for bombs and undertook surveillance tasks. High altitude balloons were also used by, of all powers, the United States during the 1950s, for reasons of gathering intelligence, though these were shot down by the irritated Soviets. Somehow, the US imperium and its noisy choristers have managed to get worked up over a solitary Chinese balloon that traversed the United States for over a week before it was shot down by the US Air Force.

On January 28, a device reported to be a “high-altitude surveillance balloon” entered US airspace in Alaska. It then had a brief spell in Canadian airspace before returning to the US via Idaho on January 31. On February 4, with the balloon moving off the coast of South Carolina, a decision was made by the US military to shoot it down using a F-22 Raptor from the 1st Fighter Wing based at Langley Air Force Base. The Pentagon has revealed that the collecting of debris is underway.

In response, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a stern note of disapproval, protesting “the US attack on a civilian unmanned airship by force.” This was “a clear overreaction and a serious violation of international practice.” Beijing also issued a note of apology, regretting “the unintended entry of the ship into US airspace due to force majeure.”

A US State Department official, while noting the statement of regret, felt compelled to designate “the presence of this balloon in our airspace [as] a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law.”

Rumours of a second Chinese balloon flying across Latin America were also confirmed by a spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry on February 6, who described it as being “of a civilian nature and is used for flight tests.” The instrument had been impaired by weather in its direction, having “limited self-control capabilities.”

The Pentagon’s press secretary, Brigadier General Pat Ryder, also confirmed the existence of the second balloon, reaching the predictably opposite conclusion to his Chinese counterparts. “We are seeing reports of a balloon transiting Latin America. We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon.”

This overegged saga has seen much airtime and column space dedicated to those in the pay of the military-defence complex. Little thought was given about the purpose of such a seemingly crude way of collecting military intelligence. Timothy Heath of the Rand Corporation went so far as to extol the merits of such cheeky devices. For one thing, they were hard to detect, making them somehow reliable.

General Glen VanHerck, commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and US Northern Command, made reference to a number of Chinese spy balloons that supposedly operated with impunity during the Trump administration. “I will tell you that we did not detect those threats.” This had resulted in a “domain awareness gap that we have to figure out.” At this writing, the begging bowl for even larger defence budgets is being pushed around the corridors of power.

Lawyers of international law have also had their say, reaching for their manuals, and shaking their heads gravely. Donald Rothwell of the Australian National University thought that “the incursion of the Chinese balloon tested the boundaries of international law.”

Thankfully, one or two sober notes of reflection have prevailed, even from within the military-intelligence fraternity. The Center for Strategic and International Studies has issued a few self-evident truths. “Balloons are not an ideal platform for spying,” writes James Andrew Lewis. “They are big and hard to hide. They go where the winds take them.” Such instruments “would be a strange choice for a technologically advanced and sophisticated opponent.”

This absurd spectacle has become the stuff of political bricks and straw for a Biden administration keen to push its stuttering election cart. Embroiled in his own classified documents scandal, President Joe Biden was put off his stroke about focusing on any announcement about running for a second term. Burnishing the China Threat was just the ticket.

In his State of the Union Address, Biden paved the way for a number of rhetorical salvos against the Great Yellow Hordes he finds so threatening to the awesome majesty of US power. “Today, we’re in the strongest position in decades to compete with China or anyone else in the world.” In passing reference to the balloon, the president proved entertainingly, if absurdly belligerent: “as we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did.” Such a response, and such a threat.

The Chinese explanation has been scoffed at and derisively dismissed. Yet balloons are an almost quotidian feature of scientific and meteorological work, whatever the official explanation offered by Beijing might be. NASA’s own Scientific Balloon Program, for instance, has been most engaged of late. The organisation was keen to tout its fall 2022 campaign involving six scientific, engineering and student balloon flights in support of 17 missions.

The scale of any one mission be sizeable. “Our balloon platforms,” came the description from NASA’s Scientific Balloon chief Debbie Fairbrother, “can lift several thousand pounds to the edge of space, allowing for multiple, various scientific instruments, technologies, and education payloads to fly together in one balloon flight.”

The disproportionate nature of Washington’s reaction to Beijing over such balloons also looks rather odd in the face of vast surveillance technologies it deploys against adversaries and friends. But politics is not merely the art of the possible but an opportunity for the absurd to find form and voice. On this score, the mouse has clearly terrified the elephant.

 

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8 comments

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  1. Phil Pryor

    USA childishness is on display, balloons, interjections, lying filth in congress, distorted rubbish in media. You cannot hide or steer the balloons, argue with nitwits like Greene, De Santis, Trump, the Fox freaks, failures and fantasists all.., and the fading president cannot fill the Superman shoes, the Batman jockstrap, the Phantom jacket, because old Joe, better than the orange orifice certainly, is an incredible green lump in the throat. A sick, swollen, fevered, deluded, feverish national ego will ruin them and maybe, All of Us.

  2. Clakka

    Yeah well, considering its increasing rarity, maybe they’re really trying to scavenge the helium with, heaven knows, their usual ballistic means, and then turn it into a controllable hot-air ballon?

  3. paul walter

    Haven’t read it yet. Will just say I found some it hilarious.

    These balloons.

  4. Harry Lime

    Looking forward to “Balloon platforms” being introduced into the next Olympics,held in the good ‘ol US of A,where they may demonstrate their aerial superiority by performing 14,000 triple back flips,whilst wearing specially designed stars and stripes full body leotards.Peferably over land.Fully endorsed and sponsored by Spooks inc.

  5. Canguro

    These Americans clearly have no sense of irony, yet alone a willingness to acknowledge their own participation in the game of overfly in relation to other countries’ air space, instead preferring to default to their usual theatrics of high dudgeon, how dare they, don’t mess with us we’re Americans, and other infantile forms of rhetoric.

    In a manner consonant with John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty in his memorable sketch when taking the dinner orders of the German guests, and his references to WWII, Hitler, Goering et al, the Americans are playing the game of ‘I hope they don’t bring up the 1960 U-2 incident, where pilot Gary Powers was shot down by the Soviets whilst overflying Russian territory, or for that matter, the 2001 Hainan Island mid-air crash between an American Lockheed EP-3 intelligence gatherer and a Chinese Shenyang J-8 Interceptor.

    Transparency and truth, as usual, are consigned to the back stalls in these chest-thumping displays of who’s the greater alpha. The seppos are not about to abandon their fantasy of being the kings of the world, and the Chinese will not resile from their determination to pursue the path they’ve adopted. Seats at the front of the theatre recommended, should be a helluva show.

  6. New England Cocky

    This American outburst should warn the Canberra Bubble that bursting balloons and bursting bubbles takes the same strategy …. force applied.

    Maybe the decision to ”invite” a rotation of 2,500 US Marines to station in Darwin (allegedly to protect the NW Shelf American oil interests) by the Gillard LABOR government was NOT in the best interests of Australian sovereignty, making the later stationing of USAF long distance bombers at Tindal NT also eroding Australian sovereignty ….. while the AUKUS subs debacle is best recognised as a tribute payment by a vassal state for military goods that likely will not be delivered on time or on budget by the foreign contractors.

    Perhaps Australian pollies can see that the distance from Tindal to the Canberra Bubble is much less than the distance from Tindal to Beijing and the movement of Marines overland from Darwin to the Canberra Bubble is about a three day caravan trip.

    Australian voters need to recognise the history that the USA (United States of Apartheid) used to start the Vietnam imperialist War and the later WMDs (Words of Mass Deception) of the Iraq Invasion, both serving the financial interests of the US NE military industrial complex that now appears to control the US Congress.

  7. leefe

    Given the capabilities of satellite mounted surveillance systems, wtf would anyone bother with a balloon? Can someone please make it make sense?

  8. Anthony Judge

    Love the paranoia. On a much smaller global scale, I note the media frenzy with regard to “Jadeja handling of ball raises eyebrows” (Sydney Morning Herald, 10 February 2023), namely what is he putting on his finger as an Indian bowler in the Test Series against Australia. How to compare the frenzy with that about the Chinese “spy balloon”? Is there a case for a metaphorical neologism: Globallooning (https://bit.ly/3xgZXpq)? The challenge is how to design and operate a global strategic balloon — achieving lift-off and dirigibility safely. The term recognizes the potential role of “hot air”, or the use of problematic (even explosively inflammable) “gases” — and their confusing relationship to the “emissions” which are the focus of the response to global warming. Fascinating to note the “one-ended” focus of Bill Gates in fighting climate change by stopping cows from burping (https://bit.ly/3RNCjue) — whereas Kiwis framed the challenge in relation to the other end as the “fart tax”. Balloons versus Bubbles? How about Pricking the Bubble of Global Complacent Complicity (https://bit.ly/3YmJxrN).

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