Chinese balloon incident
Public reaction to the balloon drama is vastly different on the two sides of the Pacific.
The situation could lead to further escalation between the two nations.

China Currents
A weekly talk show for China to the world.

In China, the public is genuinely confused by US overreaction to a weather balloon, to the extent that many now suspect the US government of colluding with mainstream media to hype up an accident caused by force majeure, in order to divert public attention from a devastating environmental hazard in Ohio, which was caused by the derailment of a train carrying toxic chemicals. If you track safety regulation and labor policies under three successive administrations, from Obama to Biden, they should all share some responsibility. The premise of this theory is the civilian nature of the balloon. If it's not used for espionage, then Americans must be hiding something behind the facade? What is it? On the other hand, if this balloon was genuinely used for “espionage”, as the US government claims, why did they allow it to drift cross the entire country & collect intelligence before shooting it down? The official US government explanation is to avoid the possibility of collateral damage caused by falling debris. But if that’s the explanation, why not shoot it down off the Alaskan coast to minimize that risk? In any case, the fact that the Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg would rather crack balloon jokes, andworry about construction workers being “too white”, than address the emergency in East Palestine does suggest a set of priorities that seems confusing to most Chinese.

Meanwhile in the US, people are discussing what exactly they find intolerable about the balloon. Is it about the violation of sovereign airspace? Then what’s the technical definition of it? How many kilometers above the ground? Is it about security loopholes that means continental America is less impregnable than commonly believed? Or is it the possibility of being spied upon by another country on its home turf? It’s an open secret that with a vast intelligence apparatus spinning the globe, Americans are the best listeners, but their sentiment is that at least they keep some work ethics, they could look at your personal data through a PRISM, or send physical spies into your country uninvited, but never those intrusive but ingenious balloons. A shame that it wasn’t the CIA’s idea in the first place. In their view, China is bringing up the train derailment and the Nord stream sabotage to distract international society from seeing the crux of the matter, being that China is capable of, or has already begun spying on everyone. Their starting point is that this was really a spying balloon.

So basically, it’s “your words against mine”, & no one is convinced. But the situation could lead to further escalation. In the ensuing days the US military shot down several out of, in the words of White House Homeland Security Advisor Liz Sherwood-Randall, “hundreds if not thousands” of unknown flying objects. Apparently, it’s quite crowded up there. In one case, what was shot down seemed to be a genuine weather balloon launched by the US National Weather Service. Meanwhile in China, rumor has it that action has been taken against unknown objects spotted over the East China Sea. Though it’s not clear to the outside whether both countries are engaged in tit-for-tat, it is safe to say that balloon shooting is a bad national sport for superpowers. We didn’t have to go there. 

Video stills of the Chinese Spy Balloon after it was hit with an AIM-9X anti-air missile fired from a F-22 Raptor on Feb. 4, 2023.

Despite many claims, there is not a shred of evidence to prove that the Chinese balloon was indeed performing espionage, the only thing US mainstream media picked up on to shape public opinion was how different the device was, in terms of size, weight, flight time, and travel distance, from regular weather balloons used in the US. It was too advanced to be taken as a weather balloon.

But the Chinese side didn’t say it was a weather balloon. They used the word “unmanned airship”. In fact, had China disclosed more information about the airship, especially its civil application, third countries would gather a more realistic impression on how China develops and applies its technology, and how its military plays different roles from its US counterpart.

In fact, China has been developing technology to explore the near space- that is, the space above airliners but below satellites- for decades. In 2015, Wu Zhe, one of China’s leading aeronautic scientists, had already launched China’s first near space airship to an altitude of 20000 meters. And four years later, he successfully sent the Cloud Chaser (追云号) to circumnavigate the globe, including flying across North America along the US-Mexican border.

That airship, measuring nearly a hundred meters long and weighing several tonnes, was a milestone achievement, due to its wide range of application, including providing network coverage, relaying data, geophysical prospecting, disaster warning, pollution detection, agricultural monitoring, and last but not least, airborne surveillance. However, it must be noted that there’s a world of difference between having surveillance capability and having conducted espionage activities. And the burden of proof lies with the party who brings a claim in a dispute.

On a side note, major countries, including the US and UK, were all developing similar projects. China claims, and America denies that more than 10 high-altitude balloons launched by the US have flown across Chinese territory, including sensitive regions such as Xinjiang and Tibet since May 2022. Again, your words against mine.

China’s military-civil fusion has been a thorn in their side for American strategists. While their concern is understandable against the backdrop of US-China rivalry, it should be questioned whether America should oppose Chinese dual-use technologies.

The US is unhappy to see its rival beefing up its arsenal, but when it comes to developing its own military – which is far ahead of other nations – the US takes orders from no one. It’s within America’s right to decide how many tax dollars should go to the Pentagon every year, and nobody is there to punish the White House for making policies favoring the military industrial complex. By the same token, China should have the same liberty in developing whatever technologies it deems fit as long as they’re not used for nefarious ends. There’s little moral ground to drum up a unique China threat even before it emerges.

By design, Chinese military-civil fusion is no trojan horse to deceive an enemy state into lowering its guard, but simply a cost-efficient way of buttressing the economy and defense at the same time. A rational choice for any sensible government when making industrial policy. In fact, almost every wonderous modern invention, including the Internet, is the product of military-civil fusion. Despite being framed as some kind of sinister and sophisticated plot, Chinese military-civil fusion is often counted on to provide solution to the most basic problems facing the country, such as creating favorable conditions for agriculture.

Equipped with tens of thousands of rocket launchers and battalions of artillery that are maneuvered by well-trained militia, China Meteorological Administration has the strength to tip the balance of military conflicts in global hotspots. It could be viewed as a “formidable force” to be reckoned with, but in real life, all they do with their impressive weaponry, is to modify the weather, mostly to trigger rain in a process called cloud seeding, shooting silver iodide into the clouds. In another civilian application of military technology, China shot a short-range ballistic missile – the SY400 – at a typhoon to study the natural phenomenon.

Every technology capable of destruction could also be put into constructive use. Sanctioning China and Chinese entities for acquiring technology through military-civil fusion, is to assume that US and China are mortal enemies, and will use such technology to destroy each other. Such assumptions are far from being realistic.

Even if they are, it will not be in America’s interest to punish China for developing dual-use technologies. That would encourage China, currently the distant second in terms of military spending, to pump more money exclusively into the military. 

It’s predicted that by 2025, China will produce nearly double the number of annual Ph.D. graduates in STEM subjects than in the US. Many of them are current students at universities blacklisted by the US. The brain power of these young talents could be used in various ways to benefit humanity as a whole, but could also be employed by the state with the aim of winning a high-tech arms race, which has already taken place. It is something that could be either accelerated or averted, depending on future policy choices both sides make. 

Is it in the interest of the US to push China to become its enemy, even if it means threatening an already strained economy and its people’s livelihood?

Kris Yang