The Chinese Spy Balloon and the New Cold War
The case of the Chinese floating a trial balloon over the continental US is part of the broader New Cold War
In 1960, an American U2 spy plane operated by the CIA was shot down over the Soviet Union. The US initially claimed it was a civilian weather plane operated by NASA, but had to backtrack after the Soviets produced CIA pilot Gary Powers and surveillance film from the U2 wreckage filled with Soviet military facilities. US President Dwight Eisenhower was attempting to improve relations with the Soviet Union at the time and had a summit with Soviet leader Nakita Khrushchev in two weeks. The incident caused the summit to be called off and US-Soviet relations deteriorated until October 1962, when the Cuban Missile Crisis nearly resulted in nuclear war between the superpowers. This is seen by some as the lowest point in the Cold War.
Figure 1: American U2 spy plane
There is a saying that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” In 2023, nearly the exact same scenario played out as the U2 shootdown incident, except with a Chinese spy balloon. Why a hot air balloon (invented in 220 CE in…China[i]) was used rather than a spy satellite is unclear. The balloon was sighted over Montana before US politicians bickered about shooting it down for the next several days. Finally, a $678 million[ii] American F-22 fighter jet popped the balloon off the Atlantic coast. The Chinese Foreign Ministry, taking a page out of the surveillance mishap CYA playbook, said that “the airship comes from China and is of a civilian nature, used for scientific research such as meteorology.”[iii] Then after its downing, “China strongly disapproves of and protests against the U.S. attack on a civilian unmanned airship by force”.[iv] US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, due to visit China this week, cancelled his trip. Relations between the US and China, possibly thawing after a COVID-19 low point, appear to be worsening.
Figure 2: Path of Chinese spy balloon over US[v]
The New Cold War
In our 2022 review and 2023 preview, Ad Astra spoke of a New Cold War brewing between the US and China. This balloon incident is further evidence for that framework. The US is upping military, arms, and economic cooperation with allies in the Indo-Pacific region in preparation for a showdown between Chinese and American blocs. The US already has large military bases in Japan and South Korea and is inking military agreements with other countries in the region, such as Thailand and the Philippines.[vi] America has sent arms to Taiwan, Japan, Australia, and others in the region. The Biden Administration’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is devoted to countering China’s economic influence.
Figure 3: The Indo-Pacific battlespace[vii]
If the second-half of the twentieth century was mostly about the US-Soviet Cold War, the first-half of the twenty-first century is about the US-China New Cold War. But the stakes of this game are very high. In 2021, China had over 400 nuclear weapons and by 2035 aims to have 1,500[viii]. The US has 3,750 nuclear weapons.[ix] Let’s hope that, as in the first Cold War, cooler heads prevail.
Figure 4: Cold War-era US intercontinental ballistic missile silo
Updated 2/11/2023: an earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the Solomon Islands as a US military ally.
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[vii] The Economist