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China's Spy Balloon: What Were They Really Up To?

The spy balloon reaffirms that a "US-China war" by other means is already underway. But given the strange timing, was it just a test or something more?



spy balloon
In this photo, the remnants of a large suspected Chinese spy balloon drift above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina. (© Chad Fish via AP, File)

Last Saturday February 4, a single air-to-air missile fired by a United States military aircraft over the coast of South Carolina "shot down" a Chinese high-altitude spy balloon.

I was in Honolulu, Hawaii on a business trip when the drama took place. CNN, which I happened to be watching, repeatedly played a video of the direct hit that a viewer had filmed on a smartphone. 

The conservative outlet Fox News also aired clear footage of the missile hitting the lower part of the balloon. The footage showed the surveillance payload below falling towards the ocean surface. That same report mentioned the possibility that the same type of balloon had previously flown over Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

The Chinese government strongly protested the shoot down. Indeed, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson labeled it "a clear overreaction and a serious violation of international practice." Although China claimed that it was a civilian airship that had drifted over US soil by accident, no one believed a word of it. 

We will only get a fuller picture of the incident once the wreckage from the balloon is recovered and carefully examined. However, in this article I will describe what my thoughts were there in the middle of the Pacific Ocean as the crisis unfolded.

US Crisis Management Capabilities 

Reportedly, US intelligence officials had already detected the balloon over Alaska about a week earlier. They said they were cooperating with Canada to determine how to respond. 

On Wednesday, three days before the downing took place, President Joe Biden gave the order to shoot down the intruder. Soon thereafter the US military began preparing to do so. On the day the balloon was brought down, the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) issued an order closing the airspace in the area for "national security" reasons. The shoot down occurred one hour later. 


Meanwhile, in Hawaii TV broadcasts were abruptly interrupted and state officials issued a disaster warning. It was actually a "flood warning," issued because a huge front of rain clouds was advancing on Honolulu. 

In the case of an emergency, the federal and state governments will peremptorily issue an alert and initiate security measures. That was considered the natural course of action here. For a traveler like myself from peaceful Japan, though, it was a startling new experience.

spy balloon
The suspected Chinese spy balloon drifts to the ocean after being shot down off the coast in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, US, on February 4, 2023. (© REUTERS/Randall Hill)

China's Military Surveillance Capabilities

Why did China send a reconnaissance balloon over US territory? Was it because the photos taken by its reconnaissance satellites are of low resolution? Was it seeking clearer images? 

Before it was shot down the Chinese balloon passed over nuclear missile silos in the interior of the continental United States. Observers believe China was seeking intelligence that would help it to build up its own nuclear missile arsenal in the future. 

Nonetheless, there are doubts about how effective surveillance from a balloon would be. Was it just a case of gathering whatever information they could?

Was It Meant to Test United States' Intentions?

Diplomatically, the balloon affair could not have come at a worse time. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had to postpone his pending trip to China. Why would China purposely send a spy balloon over the continental US just before the top diplomats of the two countries were scheduled to meet? 

Some observers believe China was testing US intentions. However, I do not agree. A test would not be needed to conclude that there would be an inevitable US backlash and postponement of the talks.

I have a contrary view. The Chinese Foreign Ministry was probably not aware of anything about the balloon flights. 

Let me emphasize that this is nothing more than my personal theory without any concrete evidence. For instance, say there are elements within the Chinese Communist Party, especially within the People's Liberation Army (PLA), that do not look kindly upon US-China talks. I believe there is a possibility that they would seek to derail progress in the US-China diplomatic-level talks. 


In fact, the PLA is a "prior offender." In the past, it seems to have purposely raised tensions when it seemed that China's relations with another country were about to improve. 

How Will China Respond?

The US media scene is awash with diverse opinions. Various media outlets have carried numerous differing comments on the spy balloon affair from experts and opinion makers. They range from former CIA agents to members of Congress. Moreover, they represent both sides of the political spectrum. 

For the most part, the tone is harshly critical of China. Some individuals, though, have expressed concern about the Chinese reaction to the "use of force" by the US military on this occasion.

China remained silent after the April 1, 2001 midair collision between a Chinese air force interceptor fighter jet and a US reconnaissance plane flying over the South China Sea. However, informed observers are not sure that will hold true this time. 

In any case, this incident is a reaffirmation that a "US-China war" by other means is already underway. The argument that now more than ever a "US-China dialogue is needed" seems to ring hollow. 

Worldwide, governments are dramatically changing how they deal with China.

Today's China would do well to study the lesson of what happened to Japan during the 1930s. Namely, international isolation leads to ruin.


Author: Kunihiko Miyake


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