The United States mustered its arsenal of anti-Chinese tropes and its Air Force to shoot down a balloon. It has all the characteristics of an incredible victory for those forces that opposed Secretary of State Antony Blinken's plan to visit China.
A few details regarding the balloon are apparently incontrovertible. It was launched from China. It moved at near-stratospheric levels, well above commercial airspace. At least for some of its journey, it was under some level of navigational control.
The balloon, easily spotted by civilians from the ground, was quickly labeled a suspected spy operation, and just as quickly attributed to China. The Western media left no room for any other possible explanation, although once the hysteria was created, they did publish some more measured commentary about meteorological research operations. But by then it was too late. Like Orson Welles' 1938 reading of the H.G. Wells' classic The War of the Worlds, hysteria quickly overwhelmed reason.
As details emerged, it became clear that the balloon had been known about and tracked for days and became a national issue just before Blinken's anticipated visit to China.
The timing of the story bursting onto the national scene was exquisite. It was too close to the time of the anticipated visit to allow for the situation to be resolved quickly. Politically, Blinken had little choice, although a face-to-face meeting to discuss the issues would have been a sensible solution. Instead, hounded by media hype, Blinken had little option but to postpone a visit.
The story quickly grew to include standard anti-Chinese tropes, even though they are routinely contradicted by policy actions. This meant there was questioning of why China would deploy a slow, defenseless balloon for supposed spying when, like the US, it has access to sophisticated satellites, drones and other methods of surveillance. The trope that China was somehow too unsophisticated to use advanced methods was easily sold to a gullible public.
This trope is in stark contrast to policy initiatives of the administration of US President Joe Biden, such as the CHIPS and Science Act, that are designed to hinder the progress of China's lead in advanced technology.
Another of the standard anti-Chinese tropes is the Hollywood-style idea that US adversaries are not as smart as Americans. The thinking goes that China deployed a balloon for spying even though it could be easily spotted from the ground because the country doesn't have the ability to conduct a genuine covert operation. The idea was not put as baldly as this, but it underpins the ready acceptance of the assertion that this clearly visible balloon was engaged in some sort of nefarious mission.
Unlikely as it may seem, this idea sits comfortably beside the contradictory assertion that China is running sophisticated foreign influence operations in the US.
The media coverage alleged that the balloon was spying on secret nuclear missile sites in Montana and a sensitive nuclear processing facility in South Carolina. It is ironic that the location and purpose of these sites are so hush-hush that the media was able to easily identify them and make them public. It's also ironic that the alleged spy mission, no longer secret when exposed by the media, was able to be completed over many days without any apparent interdiction or interference.
The components of the story simply do not stack up.
It beggars belief that the Chinese would launch a highly visible, easily identifiable, slow-moving balloon hovering over a known sensitive military area to conduct a spy operation. Not even Hollywood is crass enough to come up with this plot for an action movie, but this lack of credulity was not enough to stop US media and news services from quickly claiming this was a spy operation.
Weighing the available evidence from the components of the story does not support the spy balloon allegation. It's simply too obvious and visible to be credible as a spy operation. An out-of-control balloon used for meteorological research appears to be a more credible explanation, as this research method is used by many countries.
The event has generated a lot of hot air, but this episode may offer insights into those opposed to improving relations between the US and China.
The author is an international financial technical analyst and a national board member of the Australia China Business Council.
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