What are the US and China saying about the Montana balloon?
The DOD is confident this was China's intention; MFA claims a research dirigible went astray
Well, I didn’t see this coming. But as you’ll see below, it looks like the Department of Defense (DOD) did. Here are my quick notes on what we know from the US and Chinese sides about the balloon, or airship, or dirigible, that has caused Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone his planned visit to China.
First, from the US side.
A ground stop at the airport in Billings, Montana, on Wednesday that seemed to bring this ongoing incident into public view was part of “protective measures” in case the decision was made to shoot down the balloon. They decided not to, because “military commanders” did not believe the risk to life or property on the ground could be sufficiently lowered, a senior DOD official said.
GW note: Can you imagine the political and geopolitical hurricane if some rancher family had a big piece of Chinese sensor land on their kid’s bedroom?
The balloon has been tracked by US authorities throughout its time over the United States.
“We have had custody of it the entire time it has been over US airspace, entered the continental United States airspace a couple of days ago,” the DOD official said.
GW note: If the phrasing is careful and if the balloon also passed over Alaska, this would suggest it’s been tracked for even longer than “a couple of days.”
“Clearly the intent of this balloon is for surveillance,” but it “does not create significant value added over and above what the PRC is likely able to collect through things like satellites in Low Earth Orbit,” said the official.
This has been going on for years, including under one or more previous administrations.
“It is not the first time that you had a balloon of this nature cross over the continental United States. It has happened a handful of other times over the past few years, to include before this administration,” the Defense official said. But, they said, “I will say that the past number of times it did not loiter over the continental United States for an extended period of time. It's different.”
GW note: This appears to anticipate criticism that, if such incidents have been happening, the Biden administration has not made them public or worked to stop them. A partial response is now set up for the White House: that the DOD has said these incidents preceded their watch and anyway lack significant increased surveillance threats.
The Defense official appears confident China decided to take a different course.
“And clearly they're trying to fly this -- this balloon over sensitive sites, one of which was just mentioned, to collect information.” … “And precisely why they made the decision to make this different I think really is a question for them.”
Communication with Chinese officials is ongoing.
The Defense official did not specify whether they contacted PLA officials, but said they’ve engaged through multiple channels including the respective embassies.
In sum, a US defense official said similar events have been happening for several years, did not prevaricate on whether this is for surveillance, and attributed its current course to Chinese intentionality, not drifting off target.
Now, from the Chinese side:
The Foreign Ministry spokesperson initially said they would need time to look into the issue before providing an answer.
Later, the MFA provided a statement. As is frequently the case, the statement was provided in Chinese and English. As often happens, the MFA’s English translation made choices I might not have made, so I’ll provide my version below. And in this context, it’s worth noting that MFA spokespeople regularly make statements that are verifiably false.
The Chinese-language statement (dated 2023-02-03 21:35)
The official English-language translation (dated three minutes earlier)
Q: According to media reports, a Chinese unmanned airship has been spotted in US airspace. Do you have any comment?
A: The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes. Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure. The Chinese side will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure.
Observers have reasonably raised their eyebrows at the vague stated purpose for the balloon. “Used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes” is one reasonable translation of “用于气象等科研”—but it’s not very satisfying to me in capturing the message contained in the Chinese sentence.
For an acute incident like this, the MFA’s skilled English-language experts will have focused on getting the English messaging right, but it’s worth looking at the Chinese for two reasons: first, because that’s the message Chinese readers will get, and second, because despite best efforts to render diplomatic language carefully, such statements are usually deliberated in their home language.
So, here’s my highly-literal translation from the Chinese:
The airshipis from China. It is civil-use in nature, used for meteorological, etc., scientific research. Affected by the Westerlies, and with limited self-control capabilities, the airship seriously deviated from its planned course. The Chinese side expresses regret that, due to force majeure, the airship mistakenly entered the United States. The Chinese side will continue to maintain communication with the US side, to appropriately handle this unexpected situation due to force majeure.
As to the question about civilian use and the type of research claimed?
The Chinese text makes clear they are asserting this is not for military use.
This is not some sneaky effort to use “et cetera” to mask military-strategic surveillance; it’s clear they’re asserting civil 民用 as opposed to military use.
Of course, scientific research can have military uses (even if they’re not lying).
In another era, I spent hundreds of hours on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and US and Chinese statements about their own and each other’s conduct at sea. In the maritime domain, sovereign powers over conducting or limiting the conduct of maritime scientific research (MSR) are carefully structured and often contested in international law.
At sea, there is a long US-China history of suspicion and disagreement over the limits of “scientific research” that could have military applications.
I can’t take the time to brush up on all the details to make a crisp explanation, but in general the two sides have disagreed on what constitutes MSR versus military surveillance and therefore on who is allowed to do what and where. Legalities aside, suffice it to say that instruments you might find useful for counting fish stocks in the water column may also have utility in tracking submarines. (I welcome pointers to anyone who is analyzing the present dirigible from an informed aeronautical international law perspective, which I don’t have.)
Bonus: Remember when China seized a U.S. “unmanned underwater vehicle” or “glider” in 2016? Well that happened in international waters, not in Chinese-controlled seas.
In sum, there is good reason to be skeptical of the MFA explanation. The DOD is using really confident language about the intelligence community’s assessments, and large-scale civilian scientific research, even if details are not regularly shared, should come with a known research institute and program that, you know, publishes research. But the assertion is that (1) it’s civilian, and (2) its current course is inadvertent.
First thoughts on fallout
1. Secretary Blinken’s postponed China trip is a big deal.
While expectations should not have been high for any breakthroughs, travel by the US Secretary of State to China was a key outcome of the Biden-Xi meeting in November. Coming out of the intense downturn in bilateral ties during the Trump administration and following childish recrimination between the two governments during the pandemic, this was a real opportunity to sustain a stabilizing trend and build toward potentially solving some tractable problems. The visit would not have turned the tide away from a darker bilateral era, but it could have, as was hoped before the November meeting, helped to “build a floor for the relationship.”
There are signs that in the immediate term bilateral ties could face more downward pressure. The new Republican-led House has promised a great deal of noise, at minimum, and perhaps more concrete actions targeting both legitimate and politicized matters regarding China. This may now take place without any counterbalance. And it will certainly include talk of this balloon.
Blinken could have gone anyway, but I think it’s reasonable to speculate that the decision was made that the political optics on the home front would be unacceptable. To counter accusations that the administration was weak and playing nice with an invading force, Blinken would have needed to make even stronger moves than usual to signal that he’s going with a tough face on. (Already, the administration has recently hosted Japanese and Dutch leaders, reportedly securing cooperation on the semiconductor blockade, and Blinken recently spoke to the International Religious Freedom Summit, criticizing reiterating the charge of genocide “against predominantly Muslim Uyghurs” and drawing Chinese official condemnation.) Even if he had gone ahead with it, any even modest outcomes would be under a cloud, so there’s a pragmatic diplomatic reason to delay, in addition to the political optics.
2. If the balloon incursion was intentional, it may not be possible to figure out whose intention it was.
Let’s presume for the sake of argument that the US assertion that the balloon was intentionally sent and is for surveillance purposes, not meteorological research, is correct. If so, who sent it? Did whoever sent it do so with the intention of keeping the US side nervous before Blinken’s trip? And who knew?
In 2011, China’s military conducted a stealth fighter test flight while US Secretary of Defense Bob Gates was visiting Beijing. NYT reported at the time: “A senior American defense official said that when Mr. Gates asked Mr. Hu to discuss the test it was evident to the Americans that the Chinese leader and his top civilian advisers were startled by the query and were unprepared to answer him.” “The civilian leadership seemed surprised by the test,” Gates said.
Was Xi Jinping aware of the balloon’s course? Was he in favor of it? Is he livid? We may literally never find out, but if Xi wanted to send a signal that this was someone acting out of turn, I can imagine it would be hard to do so without also revealing division between his personalized leadership and the military, which is broadly understood to be the bottom line guaranteeing his power.
3. If the balloon really was, as the MFA claims, for meteorological research, keeping this and any broader such program secret from the Americans makes broader climate cooperation harder.
Why would they hide scientific research that they could reasonably assume foreign strategic defense forces would notice? If it was scientific research, however, it should be possible to be fairly convincing about this by releasing a good deal of verifiable data.
4. If the balloon was, as the DOD believes, for surveillance purposes, suggesting it was for climate science will make everyone even more suspicious of China in climate cooperation.
And that’s really unfortunate.
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About Here It Comes
Here it Comes is written by me, Graham Webster, a research scholar and editor-in-chief of the DigiChina Project at the Stanford Cyber Policy Center. It is the successor to my earlier newsletter efforts U.S.–China Week and Transpacifica. Here It Comes is an exploration of the onslaught of interactions between US-China relations, technology in China, and climate change. The opinions expressed here are my own, and I reserve the right to change my mind.
The term is 飞艇 fēitǐng. I think “airship” conjures something more steerable than the MFA would like us to understand this thing as being. But they did not use any of the various terms I could find for things like “weather balloons.”
The term is 不可抗力 bùkěkànglì, which literally means roughly “un-opposable force” but operates as a set Chinese term for legal concepts such as “act of God” and force majeure, in addition to phrases like “unavoidable eventuality.”