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The Chinese Spy Balloon: A Provocation or a Logical Move?

Do you think we'd have heard about the Chinese spy balloon over the US (or over other countries) if a Montanan hadn't looked up and taken a picture?



spy balloon
People on the ground check out a suspected Chinese spy balloon as it floats off the coast of Surfside Beach, South Carolina, US on February 4, 2023. (© REUTERS/Randall Hill)

Most of the discussion about the Chinese spy balloon shot down off South Carolina in early February is on the balloon's design, its intended purposes, and how many others were there? 

But there's another question. Why would the People's Republic of China send balloons over the United States, knowing they would probably be detected ー and cause a brouhaha? Even if this balloon was blown off course by high altitude winds, other Chinese balloons have been spotted – including over Guam and the US missile test range on Kauai in recent times. 

Xi Jinping hasn't confided in me, but maybe it's not so hard to understand. 

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

The Fat Man at the Buffet

The PRC often reminds one of a fat man at the buffet table who spots a fresh tray of eclairs. He knows he doesn't need them, but he just can't help himself. So he slides the entire tray onto his plate. He overreaches. 

This is not just a Chinese communist thing. Plenty of American businessmen enter joint ventures in the PRC, expecting mutual benefits and a fair share of the profits. "Win-win" as the Chinese might say. And they soon discover their Chinese partner aims to take over the whole operation – and does so – despite a rock-solid joint venture agreement.  

US government and military negotiators are also familiar with the 'fat man at the buffet' behavior. Back when the People's Liberation Army was invited to the RIMPAC exercise – despite plenty of misgivings on the US side, the PLA officers attending the planning conference insisted the PRC have the co-equal role with the Americans in the exercise. Not exactly how you make a good impression.

This lack of restraint can have strategic effects. Case in point: If the PRC had kept up its charm offensive of the 2000's for another five years they might have 'won.' Most countries in the Asia-Pacific region were saying that United States warnings (such as they were) were overwrought. And since China was not a threat there was no need to improve their own military capabilities. 

Even US military officers were saying the same thing. Remember Admiral Thomas Keating, then- INDOPACOM commander, offering in 2009 to help the Chinese Navy figure out aircraft carriers? 


All Beijing had to do was 'bide it's time.' But it couldn't.

Admiring the Trickster 

A Western lawyer in Hong Kong explained to me a decade ago how the Chinese admire the trickster. Someone who makes outrageous demands ー and even tries to do things that are clearly illegal. If they get away with it they are admired even more.... and if they get caught… well.... at least they tried. 

Strange behavior? Don't we sometimes admire the 'lovable rogue'?

China spy balloon
US Navy recovers the remnants of the Chinese spy balloon that flew over North America before being shot down off Myrtle Beach along the Atlantic coast on February 5. (© US Navy Twitter)

The Americans Won't Do Anything

The PRC might also have fairly thought the Americans wouldn't do anything ー being so keen to get the bilateral relationship back on track. Except for a few years during the Trump era, over the last four or five decades Beijing has pretty much gotten away unscathed, no matter what it does.  

Steal 23 million US government employee files from the Office of Personnel Management? Nothing. Take over the South China Sea? Nothing. Steal US Navy underwater drones? Nothing. Send balloons over Guam? Nothing. And over Barking Sands? Nothing.

Do you think we'd have heard about the balloon if a Montanan hadn't looked upwards and taken a picture? Vegas would give you odds that the Biden Administration would have kept it quiet ー and sent Tony Blinken to Beijing for a lecture. 

Indeed, months ago commercial airline pilots reported balloons between the Hawaiian Islands and the US West Coast. And not a word from the US government.

The Chinese may be as grabby as the fat man at the buffet, but the Americans have a pathologic need to talk and engage with the PRC ー and any amount of groveling is fine. The Chinese communists know it.

A Bargaining Chip

For decades the PRC has been furious about American surveillance, like spy flights off its coasts ー even though these are lawful and over international waters. Perhaps sending the spy balloons was settling things up ー or at least offering a bargaining point for Secretary of State Blinken's visit. China would say, "You don't like our balloons? Stop your flights off our coast ー and in our airspace ー since the South China Sea is Chinese territory ー and has been since historical times." 

spy balloon Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping (March 2022 Reuters)

Papa Xi Didn't Know

The Chinese might also have thought America's China Hands would defend them if they got caught. They were right. One heard early on that maybe some PLA or Ministry of State Security 'hawks' were trying to sabotage Xi Jinping's latest 'charm offensive' and attempts to improve ties with the USA.  

Perhaps. But in these kinds of regimes what's the upside benefit to doing something 'the boss' doesn't like or approve of?  It's unlikely you'll hear:  "Kid...I like your moxie."  More likely is a 9mm round in the back of the head.

A corollary to this argument is that Xi just didn't know about the balloon. One hears it all the time from the China hands. Concentration camps? Organ harvesting? Xi just doesn't know. If he did it would stop.

Here's a test for any China-hand: Go to the PRC and head out for a stroll, say at 9:00 PM. Bring a Sharpie with you and draw a mustache on a poster of Xi Jinping. See if the cops are waiting for you before you get back to your hotel ー or five minutes after you arrive. 

Finding the Humor

All in all, the Chinese balloons shouldn't have been much of a surprise ー as will be the case with whatever Beijing does next. 

Still, there's no need to be entirely glum. At least if you're in Beijing.

A friend who knows the PRC well, told me: "China has a sense of humor exceedingly and mysteriously similar to American humor. For some reason, it is the one area of close commonality between our two cultures."

It is very easy to imagine that within the Standing Committee of the CCP Politburo they are chuckling at the thought of responding to a bag of hot air that flew into their airspace last August (ie, Nancy Pelosi) with their own bag of hot air flying into American airspace last week.

Maotai all-around.



Author: Grant Newsham
Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine and a former diplomat and business executive who spent many years in Asia. Find his articles on JAPAN Forward.