Previous constant headlines of the Ukraine-Russia war were put on pause Friday into Saturday as the American public’s attention and discourse got temporarily consumed by the bizarre Chinese ‘spy balloon’ saga, which grew more dramatic by the hour until it was shot down by the Pentagon over the Atlantic Ocean.

But few are currently asking the necessary deeper questions related to the timing. Given the last major balloon crisis to take over 24/7 network news coverage ended up being a complete hoax (remember the “balloon boy” stunt of 2009 which had the world breathless and on edge for a full news cycle?), the current context to the Chinese balloon story and the question of cui bono is worth a deeper dive

Images: The Billings Gazette/AP

Entrepreneur and geopolitical commentator Arnaud Bertrand, who as a Westerner has spent many years living in China and frequently attempts to correct the often misleading analysis of mainstream press reports, offers an ‘alternative view’ of what’s fast unfolding below [emphasis ZH’s)…

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“I took a bit of time to dissect the “spy balloon” story – both how it is portrayed in the US and China’s response,” Bertrand begins a lengthy thread. As you’ll see, the more you think about it, the more stunned you get at the sheer absurdity of the whole thing.”

First, the US story.

China sent a “spy balloon” over highly strategic US sites. It chose to spy on these sites with a big visible balloon (reported as being “as big as multiple school buses”), that anyone can see with the naked eye from the ground, to “demonstrate it had the capability”, despite having a plethora of other more discreet ways to spy like satellites or stealth drones.

Unclear that anyone doubted China had mastered the technology of *check notes* hot air balloons and why it therefore needed to demonstrate this capability… China chose to do so on the eve of Secretary of States Blinken’s visit to China, where he was invited, and hours after signaling Blinken would also be meeting with Xi during his visit, a high-level meeting not granted to any US Secretary of States in years.

The story therefore being that China chose to disrupt a meeting with its own president and to sabotage its own efforts at détente in the US-China conflict… The Pentagon said it had been “tracking the balloon for quite some time” and that it wasn’t the first time such an incident occurred, but this time – for unclear reasons – it chose to do a public announcement. As a result, Blinken announced he was postponing his China trip.

Now the story from the Chinese side.

To them this is a fluke accident, the balloon being “a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes” that “deviated far from its planned course” because of strong “Westerlies” (wind that flows west to east) and “limited self-steering capability”, the main characteristic of a balloon being of course that it can only go up or down.

A piece in WaPo seems to confirm this, quoting “experts in national security and aerospace [who] said the craft appears to share characteristics with high-altitude balloons used by developed countries around the world for weather forecasting.”

(Source: washingtonpost.com/world/2023/02/… )

The Pentagon itself said that “the payload wouldn’t offer much in the way of surveillance that China couldn’t collect through spy satellites” and that “the balloon posed no serious physical or intelligence threat”.

I.e. the Pentagon themselves say it would make zero sense for China to use a balloon like this for intelligence purposes when it has satellites. Kind of begs the question why they decided to make a big deal out of it in the first place…

I’ll let you decide for yourself which story makes more sense… The sheer ridiculousness of this Nth “red scare” episode is absolutely obvious to anyone with an iota of common sense. Except, sadly, common sense seems to be in critically short supply nowadays.

Also, as often, the real story is probably why this story became a story in the first place.

And the important context here is of course Blinken’s visit to China, which could – one can always dream – have been a step towards some form of de-escalation in China-US rapports. It was quite easily foreseeable that a story like this one on the eve of the trip would have made it politically very difficult for Blinken to go.

So a plausible hypothesis is that this whole episode is an attempt by internal US forces to prevent any US-China détente. One alternative hypothesis, much less likely, is that it’s internal Chinese forces trying to do the same thing by sending this big balloon.

Unlikely because:

a) China has time on its side so it gains from reduced tensions with the US and there isn’t any obvious “faction” in China who believe the contrary

b) it’d be immensely risky for anyone in China to do something like this as it’d undoubtedly be seen as an act of high treason with grave consequences for themselves

c) again, balloons like this particular one basically can’t be steered so…

To plan sending a balloon like this from China to a place over US land isn’t even doable in the first place. The last hypothesis, which I guess is also somewhat likely, is that this is a series of unfortunate events without any malice on either side.

1) Balloon deviates from course and gets in US airspace,

2) people see it and Pentagon feels it has to communicate about it

3) the media, wearing their usual “China bad” hat, decide to go all-in on the scare-mongering,

4) political opposition and China hawks jump on the bandwagon,

5) administration feels it has no other choice than to cancel the trip and doesn’t have the political courage to say “this is just a balloon that drifted off course”.

Well I guess in this scenario there is in fact malice on the media’s part and that of politicians and wider members of the blob but it’s “organic malice”, so to speak, jumping at a golden opportunity to scare-monger.

Conclusion: however you see it, this story is absolutely shameful and a sad reflection of the insane times we live in, when rather than take the time to carefully consider facts, apply reason and common sense, we instead choose as a society to incite fear and hostility.


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