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  • Writer's pictureRichard Murff

Hot Air

Party Favors From the Great Game


A balloon that is 200 feet tall and wide enough to line up three school buses inside it is hard to miss – even from 65,000 feet up. On 2 February, the monster was spotted in the skies above Great Falls, Montana home of one of three air-force bases that operate and maintain the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles.


One assumes that there wasn’t an enormous “Made in China” stamp on it, but that it was Chinese was never in in doubt. Beijing claimed it was a civilian weather balloon, although seemed not to know from where it was launched. Which is pretty rich coming from a government that can track a stray attitude at a mile and a half. The Pentagon was dubious. Spokesman Brig. General Patrick Ryder saying, “The fact is, we know it’s a surveillance balloon… I’m not going to be able to be any-more specific than that.”


He’d know because, even more alarming, the White House confirmed that surveillance balloons have floated over our amber waves of ballistic missiles before, and not just on Biden’s watch. A few got by while Trump was in office. He denies this, but his former staffers are less adamant. It’s just one of those things that China does, but Washington is being pretty tight with the details.


None of which answers the why of the thing. Beijing already knew the missiles were there, or if they didn’t, could’ve gotten it from Goggle Earth. Still, China isn’t afraid to repurpose low-cost, low tech technology into novel solutions – like when it combined a hyper-sonic glider and intercontinental missile to skirt our missile defense shield from the south. Balloons are cheap, easy to retrieve and, unlike satellites which whiz by and take a snapshot, balloons linger. This opens up the possibility that the payload wasn’t taking pictures, but there to absorb data and chatter.


Understand that SIGINT – signals intelligence – isn’t the only form of intelligence. HUMINT, or Human intelligence, is less secret cameras and microphones and more an assessment of motives and ambition. One theory is that China wanted to test the US reaction. If so, then Congress went typically berserk on both sides, but ultimately the administration reacted strongly – but with enough forethought not to shoot the thing down over land. The problem with the theory is that, diplomatically speaking, the timing is bad for both sides, but worse for China. President Xi has an economy to open up and the Washington’s successful recent tour through the Indo-Pacific is largely thanks to Beijing overplaying its hand with its neighbors.


The most obvious explanation is both the simplest and the hardest to get accept by the public: That some bureaucrat or technician in the bowels of the Chinese Communist Party simply made a mistake, whiffed it or pulled a boner. As fast as Beijing was to express regret, this is looks likely. Although, it wasn’t so offering an apology as shoving one down our throat. We really don’t like to think that war start over things some clod pissing in the whiskey like that, but Remember the Maine? Spain never torpedoed a US battleship in Havana, improperly stored coal and an electrical short caused the explosion. And we got the Spanish American War… and Cuba.


Which is exactly what Presidents Biden and Xi were trying to avoid when they met in Bali in November. True, not much was accomplished, but given the overheated rivalry no news is good news. What makes the balloon so problematic is that, as any married person can attest, when tensions get tight enough, the first thing that snaps in the benefit of doubt. As it was, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s Beijing trip – never officially on the books and without any practical hopes of achieving anything diplomatically – was scrapped.

The Pentagon admits that it is unlikely that the balloon could gather much it didn’t already know, and with US spy planes escorting it through US air space even less. Still, the CCP seemed curiously attached to the weather balloon they couldn’t explain. As it was, we shot it down over the waters off Myrtle Beach on 4 February where the debris landed in some 37 feet of water and our guy got served a complaint at the Embassy in Beijing for “seriously violating the spirit of international law.”


I don’t know about that. Besides, they’ve got more, there is one currently floating over Latin America, first sighted over Costa Rica and more lately over Venezuela – which would indicate it is headed towards Louisiana.


In the end, though, the balloon is just a party favor in the Great Game we’re playing. There is a greater context of the rivalry between two enormous, nuclear tipped powers: Taiwan, of course, but also the fact that the US has issued joint statements and agreements with a handful of Asian nations that have asked the US for help with an overbearing China.


Beijing is also desperately looking to the commercial front. The whole fracas coming right as President Xi is trying to convince US corporations that it is business as usual in the People’s Republic, now that it’s opened up post-Covid and beaten all the Foxcomm employees into submission for Apple.


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