Ever since an alleged Chinese spy balloon made its merry way across the United States, triggering a full-on meltdown from the political class, we’ve been treated to seemingly around-the-clock panic-mongering about China’s dastardly balloon ambitions.
GOP lawmakers and Fox News wasted no time in speculating whether the balloon was carrying a bioweapon (“Did it take off from Wuhan?”). The balloon was a prelude to Chinese mobilization for World War III, we heard from China “expert” Gordon Chang, who suggested it “seems more than accidental” this was happening three weeks out from the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In fact, China’s game was possibly to make the United States shoot it down, said retired House Republican Adam Kinzinger, so they could “evaluate high altitude capabilities of certain fighters.” Actually, no, it was there to “surveil strategic sites in the continental United States,” defense secretary Lloyd Austin informed us. Republicans widely criticized President Joe Biden for not blowing the balloon out of the sky earlier.
The panic only continued once the military shot down three more unidentified objects in the sky last week. “Could they say with assurance that that payload under the balloon . . . did not contain a nuclear weapon?” uber-hawk John Bolton asked on CNN. A former intelligence officer and current administration official told the New York Times that China was trying to “harass America” on the cheap and that both it and Russia wanted to test US intelligence. “Lock your doors tonight,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) darkly warned reporters after a briefing on the incidents.
Now a little over a week out from the original, terrifying balloon incursion — and only a few days from that briefing that left Sen. Kennedy shaken to his core — we find out almost none of this was true.
It turns out the original balloon hadn’t, as US officials had told the public, been first detected off the coast of Alaska five days before it became major news, but had been tracked for nearly a week as soon as it took off from Chinese territory, according to the Washington Post. And rather than a deliberate provocation or, as Austin had first claimed, an attempt to surveil sites on the US mainland, intelligence analysts were privately suspecting the balloon had been accidentally blown way off course (even if, according to those analysts, the Chinese leadership decided to use the opportunity that then opened up to surveil nuclear sites in Montana).
Meanwhile, after Biden ordered fighter jets to fire on several more mysterious objects the following week, the president then publicly admitted none of them were Chinese spy balloons, let alone floating bioweapons. Rather, they were “most likely” balloons for research or commercial purposes with no connection to Beijing, he said.
In fact, it could be much worse: around the same time the objects were shot down, a club of Illinois balloon hobbyists reported their pico balloon had gone missing shortly before it should’ve popped up in the Yukon territory, where US fighter jets had shot down one of the objects — raising the possibility that the US military had just wasted a $400,000 missile to destroy a small balloon that retails for as little as $12.
This is all hugely embarrassing, but the consequences could’ve been a lot more severe than some red faces in Washington. In the frenzy of attacks on unidentified things over US skies, the first missile fired over Lake Huron missed, fortunately landing “harmlessly” in the water rather than killing someone on the lake or landing somewhere populated. Not to worry, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mark Milley assured the public; Biden had insisted the military “shoot it down, but make sure we minimize collateral damage.” The American people will no doubt sleep soundly knowing that as their military impulsively fires missiles at hobby balloons and other harmless objects floating over their homes, they will always be sure to minimize the collateral damage that results.
It’s not hard to see what’s happened here. Amid rising US-China tensions — tensions the Biden administration and Democrats have done much to needlessly escalate — the resulting hyperventilation and political posturing from war hawks and the Right prompted Biden to look “tough” by ordering a reckless series of strikes in US airspace that could have killed someone, without knowing what the hell they were even shooting at. It’s no exaggeration that the over-the-top political reaction to the original, actual Chinese spy balloon was more of a danger to ordinary Americans than the balloon itself.
As Responsible Statecraft’s Connor Echols highlighted, the episode resembles the phantom airship panic of 1913, when rising international tensions and a climate of panic ginned up by pro-war politicians and a cynical press led thousands across the UK to “see” German Zeppelins flying around British skies. Unlike the airships, the original Chinese spy balloon was at least real, but at the heart of each episode is the way that war hysteria can distort reality and cloud rational judgement. The fact that the airship panic came one year before European governments blundered their way into a catastrophic, pointless war makes the parallels more ominous.
What makes it all especially absurd is how much of a nothingburger the instigating incident actually is. We all know governments spy on each other all the time — you might recall the decade-old revelations that Washington runs a massive global surveillance system collecting virtually everything everyone does online, including by tapping undersea cables — and that the United States in particular has a history of sending surveillance objects over other countries’ airspace and claimed territory, including in 2001, when a US spy plane collided with a Chinese jet while skirting closer to the country’s airspace.
That this has been blown so out of proportion — and that it ended with US fighter jets endangering American lives by firing at random airborne objects for the sake of political ass-covering — points to the danger of continued spiraling US-China tensions, and how little benefit they are to ordinary Americans. And far from projecting strength and US leadership to the rest of the world, they make US officials appear impulsive, frightened, and prone to unwarranted panic to the point of recklessness.