Suspected spy balloon shows how diplomacy can go way off course

On May 1, 1960, an American pilot, Francis Gary Powers, took off from a military airbase in Peshawar, Pakistan, in a top-secret U-2 spy plane to fly 3,000 miles across the Soviet Union, and take high resolution photos of military facilities.

His specially-designed plane, flying higher than any other, out of the range of Soviet interceptors, was thought to be impervious to identification or attack. Wrong.

The Soviets knew it was coming, and fighter jets shadowed it from below as soon as it entered their airspace. Eventually, as it passed over an advanced air defense location, a Soviet S-75 surface-to-air missile shot it out of the skies. Powers ejected from the plane, and was captured, marking a diplomatic setback between the US and the USSR, which consequently torpedoed a critical summit between Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and President Dwight Eisenhower, who had personally green-lit the U-2 program.

And this week we had the Chinese balloon, which was shot down by the US military Saturday afternoon over the Atlantic Ocean shortly after the Federal Aviation Agency issued a ground stop for three airports in the Carolinas. The balloon was first spotted flying over Montana earlier this week and drifted its way to the coast of the Carolinas before exiting the continental United States. China quickly claimed this was a civilian weather balloon that had somehow gone astray, though on Friday Pentagon officials said it was maneuverable and “violated US air space and international law”.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken decided to postpone his upcoming trip to China in response to the flying of the Chinese balloon over the continental US.

Last November, a Chinese Long March 2D rocket blasted off from Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwestern China, inserting three highly-sensitive Yaogan-36 satellites into orbit 300 miles above the earth. This was the third such launch of similar satellites and China’s 54th last year. Between 2019 and 2021, China doubled the number of its satellites in orbit from 250 to 499.

Perhaps, though, Chinese officials believed that Americans wouldn’t even notice a balloon or two floating 60,000 feet up. But the United States has the capability of following launches virtually from liftoff in China, like the time the US Space Force pinpointed the launch of the Long March 2D rocket at 7:23 am EST on November 27, 2022, for instance. That’s part of its job, although it’s unclear just how sensitive its monitoring technology is in terms of the ability to pick up balloon launches.

Canada also apparently spotted the balloon this week. And the Pentagon also reported another balloon was flying over Latin America.

So, the question is whether China carefully considered the consequences of its actions. Intentional or otherwise, if it was indeed monitoring air flows, their engineers might have suspected these weather phenomena would eventually take these balloons over the United States.

In that case, one could be forgiven for imagining the darker scenarios — that the Chinese might have been seeking some excuse to ditch the visit that Blinken was scheduled to undertake, beginning Sunday.

Expectations for the trip were never very high. Relations between the US and China have been on a decidedly downward spiral for some time. The Biden Administration has slapped stiff controls on the export of equipment to manufacture advanced semi-conductors and just this week persuaded Japan and the Netherlands to sign on.

The US is also in the process of establishing access to two key military bases on the Philippines’ northern island of Luzon — keys to any operations in the South China Sea or around Taiwan in case of any efforts by China to stir the pot there.

After all, the US did mount major offensive operations against North Vietnam out of Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base, both in the Philippines, during the entire Vietnam War.

Then there is the visit to Taiwan that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is said to be planning and which Beijing has already pro-actively warned against. At the same time, Russia has announced Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit its leader, Vladimir Putin, at an unspecified time this spring, though the Chinese side has not yet confirmed it.

Blinken does seem to have been game to try his best to level off this downward trajectory in bi-lateral relations. As he told a press conference with his South Korean counterpart, “In our judgment, [the balloon] created conditions that undermine the very purpose of [my] trip, including ongoing efforts to build a floor under the relationship as well as to address a very broad range of issues that are important to Americans, to Chinese, to the entire world”.

It’s hard to believe China would use as ham-handed a provocation as a spy balloon to send any contrary signal. Especially since this has got to be as embarrassing to China as the U-2 incident was to Eisenhower.

Back then, Eisenhower tried to minimize it at first, ordering the NASA press office, stunningly, to say the U-2 had been conducting “weather research”, and that Powers might just have strayed a trifle off course and wandered over top-secret Soviet military facilities after he’d “experienced difficulties with his oxygen equipment”.

Now, finally, the US has shot down the balloon safely and will hopefully recover the remains. Then the world will really know — and America can demonstrate, just as the Soviets did with Powers’ mission so long ago. Perhaps the Chinese rubble will even find its way to the Smithsonian as the recovered wreckage of the U-2 spy plane has proved to be an immensely popular item on display at Moscow’s Central Armed Forces Museum.

David A. Andelman, a contributor to CNN, twice winner of the Deadline Club Award, is a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, author of A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen and blogs at Andelman Unleashed. He formerly was a correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News in Europe and Asia. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

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