Americans Told to Fear a Balloon

The first is it was nothing more than a media-hyped story created to keep Americans in suspense.

It sounds like something out of a Hollywood movie: A huge balloon in the sky, and it is spying on us. Soon, experts from around the country are brought in. Their job? Provide scientifically sound evidence to the country’s president, as he decides exactly what to do about the menacing balloon that continues to float across the nation. Frightened citizens — from politicians to private citizens — are paralyzed by fear that their lives could be permanently ruined because of the big, bad balloon in the sky.

What you just read is not some fictional nonsense from a movie producer. In fact, Americans were told over the last few days that a real balloon that began its flight in China and that was crossing from west to east across the U.S. was designed to perhaps collect American military, scientific or personal data. The narrative continued like this: The balloon, without a doubt, was one more example of the evil, menacing nature of the Chinese regime. And something had to be done, or else…well, no one was quite sure what else. But something had to be done!

With this ridiculous rhetoric soon taking off (pardon the pun), Republican politicians quickly demanded that President Joe Biden order the military to rid the country of this dangerous object.

The president — aware that the equipment attached to the balloon could cause serious damage if it came crashing to Earth — instead waited for the balloon to float over the Atlantic Ocean before giving the order to blast it into many pieces.

One columnist of the Washington Post sarcastically noted that America’s national nightmare was over, stating that “one of the most advanced U.S. weapons systems — an F-22 Raptor — shot down one of China’s most primitive surveillance systems: a balloon that had been traversing the United States.”

A high altitude balloon floats over Billings, Mont., on Feb. 1, 2023.

Yes, the president did something else before he ordered the destruction of the balloon: He saw to it that his Secretary of State, who was supposed to travel to Beijing for important meetings with Chinese officials, postponed that trip. This decision to keep Antony Blinken in the United States definitely sent a powerful message to China, although no one seemed to be able to say exactly what that message was.

As you might expect, Republicans had a message. Former president Donald Trump suggested that a weak Biden had “surrendered” American airspace to China. One Texas Republican said that “American sovereignty” was under threat because of the balloon. Another Texas Republican argued that the balloon proved that America’s “enemies used to fear us,” but no longer did with Biden in the White House.

Imagine: The country that insists it is the undisputed world power, the country that has enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world many times over, the country that boasts of its exceptionalism spent days fearing a balloon.

There are two possible answers to explain this baloney about the balloon. The first is it was nothing more than a media-hyped story created to keep Americans in suspense. If you accept this idea, then the money-grubbing corporations that own America’s largest news agencies saw the perfect opportunity to wrap the ever-convenient narrative that China is a threat to the world order around the uncertainty of what the balloon actually was and the anxiety over what it might do. Republicans were all so happy to add plenty of hot air (again, pardon the pun) to this ludicrous idea that China was menacing the United States with a balloon.

This image provided by the U.S. Navy shows sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recovering a high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, S.C., Feb. 5, 2023.

The other answer should make Americans even more uncomfortable: The reaction to the balloon is an indicator that America is in fact frightened of China. If you accept this idea, then the balloon was a metaphor for China stalking the U.S., constantly reminding America that its days as the global hegemon were soon to end. If America is a nation now afraid of what China can become, then exceptionalism seems as empty as the remnants of the balloon that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

Whether you find the story silly or serious, keep in mind that the balloon’s flight across America’s skies happened mere days after a U.S. Air Force general warned that the U.S. and China could be at war within two years.

General Michael Minihan’s “logic” is that elections in Taiwan in 2024 will provide a justification for China to invade, and that the U.S. will have to respond to that aggression. The general appears to have forgotten that Taiwan is part of China and that the U.S. supports the one-China principle. Or perhaps he is simply eager for a fight. Keep in mind this is the same man who last year was quoted as saying, “When you can kill your enemy, every part of your life is better. Your food tastes better. Your marriage is stronger.”

Ignore the general for a moment and keep in mind that too many Americans definitely were led to believe over the past few days that every part of their lives was worse because of a balloon. President Biden would be wise to tell Secretary of State Blinken to get that trip to Beijing quickly rescheduled so that non-stories about balloons and dangerous rhetoric from military leaders can be shut down by substantive progress on important bilateral issues.


The article reflects the author’s opinions, and not necessarily the views of China Focus.