Why Did China Send a Spy Balloon?

older spy tech shot down over u.s. waters

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Spy balloons are some of the oldest surveillance tech in use. The world has since moved on to satellites that capture incredible detail from space. So, why was a balloon recently sent over U.S. airspace?

Spy balloon in the sky
Photo by Broadcast Media / Shutterstock

The presence—and subsequent shooting down—of a Chinese spy balloon flying over U.S. airspace dominated headlines, recently. After the dust settled, as many questions seemed to arise as answers: What was its purpose? What information was it to obtain? And in the technological age of satellites and drones, why was a balloon used?

Many have theorized that the easily detectable balloon was intended to send a message to the United States and to the Biden administration, to gauge the American reaction—ultimately, raising further questions about the two nations’ perceptions of each other. In his video series Assessing America’s National Security Threats, Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster, U.S. Army (ret.), analyzes the misconceptions Americans have about China.

Are U.S.-China Tensions Provoking China?

“We frequently misperceive China’s motivations through two principal misunderstandings that are important to correct,” Lt. Gen. McMaster said. “China’s leaders use these misunderstandings to get away with their policies of aggression. The first misunderstanding is that Chinese aggression is the result of U.S.-China tensions.”

According to Lt. Gen. McMaster, the United States doesn’t provoke Chinese aggression. One example is China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Not only did Chinese leaders suppress information about the virus, but they also prosecuted doctors who tried to warn the world. Some Chinese leaders facilitated conspiracy theories about COVID-19’s origins and got hackers to conduct cyberattacks against hospitals and medical research centers around the world.

“The CCP tried to win the race for COVID-19 therapies and vaccines while adopting draconian lockdowns to emerge from the pandemic in a position of relative advantage, supporting an impression that its authoritarian system is superior to democracies,” Lt. Gen. McMaster said.

“Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party also used the pandemic to advance the country’s technologically-enabled police state, and to extend its oppression into Hong Kong, and to conduct slow genocide of ethnic Uyghurs in the autonomous Xinjiang region of northwest China.”

Is U.S.-China Competitiveness Good or Bad?

Lt. Gen. McMaster said that the other common misunderstanding about relations between the United States and China is that competition between the two nations will set a “Thucydides’ Trap.” In this model, the threat that a rising power imposes onto an existing or status quo power increases the chances of war breaking out between the two. This promotes a false dilemma that the only two resolutions are war or passive accommodation.

“Competition—and being transparent about it—is the best way to avoid militarized escalation,” he said. “Competition can promote, rather than foreclose, economic and diplomatic cooperation. Accommodation, in contrast, will encourage an increasingly aggressive Chinese state.”

Furthermore, the Thucydides’ Trap’s false dilemma could provide a cover for Chinese aggression as well as a rationalization for those who would shrink from competition.

The FBI has begun analyzing recovered wreckage of the spy balloon that was recently shot down over the Atlantic Ocean; this story is developing.

Assessing America’s National Security Threats is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily