China’s ‘Spy’ Balloon: The Final Word? – OpEd


US television and radio network CBS in its news on 17 September 2023 carried a report with a strange and provocative title, The bizarre truth behind China’s Spy Balloon.  

According to the report

It was surely the most bizarre crisis of the Biden administration: America’s top-of-the-line jet fighters being sent up to shoot down, of all things, a balloon – a Chinese spy balloon that was floating across the United States, which had the nation and its politicians in a tizzy.

Now, seven months later, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tells “CBS News Sunday Morning” the balloon wasn’t spying. “The intelligence community, their assessment – and it’s a high-confidence assessment – [is] that there was no intelligence collection by that balloon,” he said.

Nation and politicians driven into “a tizzy” by a balloon that was not spying according to the “high-confidence assessment” of the US intelligence aka spying community!

Readers should note that the CBS story continues to falsely claim that it was a “spy balloon” that flew over the US. This was cleverly reported by obscuring the main point made by the US military chief.  

It is also noteworthy that other US media have ignored the story as well as scrubbed General Milley’s overdue admission and explanation that the balloon was blown off course, and his inference that the balloon was not intended to fly over US air space.

“Those winds are very high. The particular motor on that aircraft can’t go against those winds at that altitude.”

US and Western Media Hype 

To recount, few events in China-US relations have aroused US and other Western politicians and leaders – and western media – as much as the alleged China spy balloon episode. 

Beginning from January 28 2023 when the balloon was first spotted flying over Alaska until 4 February when it was shot down, the balloon precipitated possibly the most coverage and most agitated news cycle in US and western media history with reporters in newspapers, radio and television networks and news blogs lining up to have a go at China’s ability to penetrate US air space and US inability to counter China’s ‘spying’ capability. 

Political and media hype appears to have led the Federal Aviation Administration to overreaction by closing down airports and airspace in one of the largest temporary flight restrictions in US history as the balloon drifted over the Carolinas. Finally when the balloon was shot down, US war historians pointed out that the downing was the first recorded by a F-22 aircraft, the first of an aircraft over U.S. territory since World War 2 and was also the highest altitude air-to-air kill in recorded history. Numerous talk shows and copious print space was given to military experts and newly arrived war pundits speculating on the innards of the US balloon kill as the debris was retrieved from US territorial waters.   

No American politician or military leader was willing to accept China’s Foreign Ministry explanation provided on February 3 that it was “a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes. Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course.”

Spokesperson Mao Ning said China regretted the unintentional incident which was an outcome of force majeure. As US reaction intensified on February 6, Mao said that the U.S. “hyped up the incident on purpose and even used force to attack”, and called the shoot down “an unacceptable and irresponsible action”. After the downing on February 5, China’s Vice Foreign Minister said he had filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Embassy in response to the incident. Xie accused the United States of indiscriminately using force against the civilian airship that was about to leave U.S. airspace in violation of “the spirit of international law and international practice”. 

The incident not only resulted in the cancellation by State Secretary Blinken of planned talks with his Chinese counterpart; it also provided the pretext for the further beating of war drums and gave US media another headline cover story to generate anti-China and anti Chinese sentiment. 

As explained by Ambassador Craig Allen, President of the US-China Business Council several months after the incident, 

While the balloon’s transit over the Contiguous United States and Alaska was only a few days, the impact was quite long-term. The reason for that is that ordinary Americans, who generally do not think about China at all, learned that up in the sky there was a balloon. It brought at an almost personal level that China might be a threat to them; psychologically and politically, within the domestic US political system, this balloon certainly had resonance. Some in Congress opposed to the President criticized him fiercely for not shooting it down immediately, so this became a little bit of a football between the Democrats and the Republicans—I suspect it still is.

What can happen next?

Now that the “bizarre truth” has been uncovered that it was in all probability a weather balloon that had strayed from its course, we can expect US and other western media to conceal this “bizarre truth” and look for another issue and excuse to implant into the American and world public consciousness about China’s war intentions. 

For now, the US military has demonstrated to the American public that it is able to defend the country against a gigantic three bus-sized but apparently economy priced balloon from China. But it is clear that its air force and military need a much bigger budget for the coming war to preserve America’s ‘freedom, way of life and sovereignty’. 

The chief concern for China should be to avoid sending any more weather balloons near to the US in case this brings about more nightmares to the American public and provides further justification for the hate China lobby.   

Lim Teck Ghee

Lim Teck Ghee PhD is a Malaysian economic historian, policy analyst and public intellectual whose career has straddled academia, civil society organisations and international development agencies. He has a regular column, Another Take, in The Sun, a Malaysian daily; and is author of Challenging the Status Quo in Malaysia.

One thought on “China’s ‘Spy’ Balloon: The Final Word? – OpEd

  • September 19, 2023 at 2:41 pm

    The US could easily towed the balloon down and examine it for spying equipment and the nature of the balloon. This may give the US black face if they cannot find anything sinister on board the balloon.


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