Nothing about the “Chinese spy balloon” story makes sense—but that hasn’t stopped U.S. officials from using it to stoke anti-China sentiment and cancel an attempt to ease diplomatic relations.
The basics: A Chinese balloon started drifting into U.S. territory about 10 days ago. It first entered Alaskan airspace, then drifted over Canada, then made its way back into U.S. airspace, appearing over Montana on February 1. By Saturday, when U.S. forces shot down the balloon, it was floating over the shores of South Carolina.
What the Chinese say: It was “a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes”—a weather balloon, essentially—that veered off course due to westerly winds and “limited self-steering capability.”
What Americans are saying: It’s a spy balloon! It’s an act of open hostility! U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken called it “a violation of our sovereignty” and “a violation of international law.” House China Select Committee Chairman Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) declared the balloon “a threat to American sovereignty” and “a threat to the Midwest.” Mitt Romney used it as an opportunity to call for banning TikTok.
The fallout: Blinken was supposed to visit Beijing this past weekend, on a trip designed to help keep relations cordial and keep lines of communication open between the countries. He was even scheduled to meet with Chinese president Xi Jinping. But Blinken canceled the trip last week, as the Chinese balloon loomed large (literally and figuratively) over America.
Not only did the balloon nix a diplomatic visit, it’s inflaming tensions—and paranoia—here in the States. The balloon is “more fodder for China hawks in Washington, for sure,” NPR correspondent Michele Kelemen said on Saturday. Kelemen described the incident as sounding like a story out of the Cold War, which was “exactly what [Blinken’s] trip was supposed to prevent.”
The absurdity: The balloon in question is absolutely massive, with “an undercarriage roughly the size of three buses,” as The New York Times put it. This would be an absolutely bonkers way to spy on the United States—especially since the images it picks up are reportedly no better than those it can obtain through satellites. One defense official said, as summarized The Washington Post, that the images a balloon like this could obtain “wouldn’t offer much in the way of surveillance that China couldn’t collect through spy satellites.”