US shoots down high-altitude balloon and whips up anti-China paranoia

The presence of a large balloon over North America caused mass paranoia in the US as both right-wing politicians and Biden administration officials fanned “Chinese spy balloon” claims

February 06, 2023 by Peoples Dispatch
Chinese balloon over US
High-altitude unmanned balloon originating from China pictured within US airspace.

On Monday, February 6, China lodged a formal protest with the United States over the latter’s decision to shoot down a balloon last week. In a statement, China’s Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Xie Feng held the US accountable for setting back progress made in attempts to stabilize relations between the two nations. The Chinese statement also came in the wake of US government officials and politicians whipping up anti-Chinese paranoia.

A US fighter plane downed the high-altitude unmanned balloon originating from China, within US airspace, with much publicity and spectacle on Saturday, February 4. The US deployed an F-22 fighter jet to shoot an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile at the balloon just over the coast of North Carolina on the US east coast, with the US set to collect the debris from its territorial waters.

Xie said that the “indiscriminate use of military force” against the balloon, which China maintains is a “civilian unmanned airship,” had “seriously violated the spirit of international law and international conventions.”

“What the US has done has dealt a serious blow and damaged the efforts and advances in stabilizing China-US relations since the Bali meeting,” he added.

The large balloon, floating at over 60,000 feet, was a major source of anti-China fear-mongering over the past few days, as politicians and others in the US made unfounded allegations that it was engaged in aerial surveillance or some other sort of spying. At a time when the US and its allies have been doubling down on hostility against China, these allegations appear to have been received by the population at large with much paranoia.

China has since responded strongly against the downing of the balloon, maintaining that it was a weather balloon that was blown into US airspace. China’s Foreign Ministry stated that the country had verified and informed the US that the aircraft was a civilian airship that ended up in US airspace due to “force majeure—it was completely an accident.”

A Foreign Ministry statement on Sunday, February 5, further added that China had repeatedly called for the US to act in “a calm, professional, and restrained manner,” and also pointed to a statement from the US Department of Defense that said the aircraft did not pose any threat to anyone on the ground.

The ministry said that “the US side’s insistence on using force is an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice,” and further added that “China will resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of the companies concerned while reserving the right to make further necessary responses.”

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called the attack on the balloon a “deliberate and lawful action,” while several US officials from the Joe Biden administration, as well as members of the ruling Democratic Party and the opposition Republican Party, claimed the balloon was evidence of an unlawful incursion from China.

The aircraft received widespread attention on Thursday, when the US Defense Department stated that it had been monitoring the balloon after it was spotted over the State of Montana. The balloon also reportedly floated over a military site in the US as it crossed into the midwestern region.

Early reports, however, suggest that the US was well aware of the balloon when it first entered US airspace, and very likely did not see it as a threat of any kind. According to an Associated Press report citing anonymous Defense Department sources, the large balloon first entered US airspace over Alaska earlier last week.

Dan Satterfield, a US meteorologist working with CBS-affiliate WBOC TV, made a backward projection of the balloon’s path using a HYSPLIT model (used to track trajectories of air parcels) to point out that it very likely entered Alaska at the very least 48 hours before it was spotted in Montana, and was definitely on the radar of US border and defense security officials.

Satterfield’s projections also show that the aircraft, which likely began its journey from central China, entered Canada after flying over Alaska and then continued onwards to the midwestern US. Satterfield also pointed out that the balloon’s trajectory could not be easily controlled.

“China has spy satellites with five meter resolution that pass over the USA several times a day,” Satterfield said in a recent tweet. “It does not matter whether this balloon accidentally passed over a military base. After five days, anything it passed over was by chance. You cannot control the path with precision.”

The clear visibility of the aircraft during the day, easily photographed by local news channels and ordinary citizens, and its slow-moving trajectory also belied the claims made by hawkish US politicians and officials.

Nevertheless, claims that it was a spy craft whipped up mass hysteria. This included Republican politicians using the incident to target the Biden administration for supposedly being soft on China, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceling a proposed visit to China which had yet to be officially announced by either side.

Moreover, ordinary US citizens were also seemingly caught up in the frenzy.

Donald Trump Jr, the son of the former president, in a tweet taking aim at Biden’s supposed reluctance to shoot down the balloon, said: “Perhaps we just let the good people of Montana do their thing… I imagine they have the capability and the resolve to do it all themselves.”

Other Republican politicians joined in the calls to shoot down the balloon. Arizona Governor nominee Kari Lake and Ohio Senator J. D. Vance posed with rifles, and Congressman from Montana Ryan Zike even asked people on Twitter to “take a shot”.

The dangers of shooting a rifle in the air to attempt to hit a target at over 60,000 feet in the sky became a hot topic for several media houses, including Rolling Stone. The Twitter handle of the York County Sheriff’s office in South Carolina even had to put up a public announcement that read, “Don’t try to shoot it!! Your rifle rounds WILL NOT reach it. Be responsible. What goes up will come down, including your bullets.”