The Balloon in the Mist: Reactions to the China-U.S. Diplomatic Crisis

Bob Fan, Staff Writer

The appearance of a mysterious balloon over the American skies has sparked speculation that it may be a surveillance device from China. The balloon was first spotted by the US Department of Defense (DoD) above Alaska and has since been seen hovering in Northwest Missouri and the Kansas City area until it was shot down on February 4 by an F-22 combat aircraft over the adjacent waters of South Carolina.

Officials from the U.S. government did not give many reactions about the object for a couple of days after the balloon was shot. As the Pentagon dissected the wreckage of the balloon, some experts believed that it could be another spy balloon sent by the Chinese Government. If true, this would raise concerns about the potential infringement of American citizens’ privacy.

The apparent intrusion of foreign surveillance technology has caused a tsunami on social media. Several well-known media outlets, led by NBC News and CNN,  questioned the goal of the Chinese government and the U.S. government’s ability to prevent such threats. Taking it one step further, media like Scientific American and The Times have called for more stringent surveillance and counterintelligence measures to be put in place to prevent such events from happening in the future.

“There are many balloons in the sky. Do you want to down each and every one of them?” said Wang Yi, the senior diplomat of China in an interview on February 7th in Munich. In contrast, Chinese officials’ reactions are more severe. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China described the shooting of the balloon by the US as “absurd and hysterical”, and as an act of “abusing the use of force”. Wang Yi said on the stage at the Munich security conference that he sees the shootdown as part of an attempt to divert people’s attention from domestic issues. 

The mystery of the balloon got a bit clearer last Monday. US officials said preliminary findings indicate the balloon’s self-destruct mechanism was intact. They believe that Chinese officials likely wanted to avoid initiating self-destruction over land for fear that the resulting loss of life or damage would cause the crisis to escalate. Chinese officials may be able to deflate the balloon so it could land, but did not want the surveillance equipment to fall into American hands.

Navy divers have recovered some of the balloon’s sensor parts. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the balloon is equipped with a camera and antenna array. However, they believe the balloon is not very capable as they learned more about it. Regardless of the balloon’s capabilities, the Pentagon shut down all communications and activities at military stations and bases along the way as the balloon drifted over the states.

“It’s really concerning why they sent a balloon,” said an anonymous Chinese graduate of the MacDuffie School in 2022, “I see no reason for a meteorological balloon to enter another country’s borderline [if it is a meteorological balloon], and why do they choose a balloon if they want information? This event makes me confused and worried about my security, especially with tensions between the US and China already high.” 

The tunnel of communication was also shut down as the balloon fell. Shortly after the balloon was shot down on February 4th, Wei Denghe, the minister of Chinese Defense power, refused to take a phone call from the U.S. Defense Secretary. Blinken, the U.S. Secretary of State, decided to cancel his visit to China due to this event, and the White House does not seem to be scheduled for another visit. A public spat erupted this week between the White House and the Chinese Foreign Ministry last week over their perspective on the event.

Evelle D. Haynes, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, said “It is far more difficult to communicate with China in times of crisis than it was to talk to Soviet leaders in the Cold War” in a discussion at Columbia University. In her opinion, Chinese Officials tend to be repressive rather than conversational in a crisis, which made information exchange much more complicated. She also thought the outcry over the surveillance balloon was “crazy” but “reasonable”, considering the difficulty to communicate and the absurdity of the event.

Although it has already been more than two weeks, the balloon continues to create disturbances between the world’s two largest military powers and economies, whose relations were already at their lowest point in decades.

“Once the perception that ‘a particular country is an enemy’ is established in the population, it will be more difficult for countries to soften their positions and restabilize their relationship,” said Hong Yuanyuan (often known as Yuen Yuen Ang), a Chinese scholar from Johns Hopkins University. 

Yuanyuan also pointed out that the most important long-term impact may be the impression the matter leaves on the general public. “Population power will be gathered once they have followed the same incident and had the same opinion. Such power won’t be fun to handle,” she summarized. A sense of “the other side is the enemy” formed among the Chinese and American people, and this trend will turn into a storm soon.