US servicemen recover a balloon (Petty Officer 1st Class Tyler Thompson/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)


February 14, 2023   4 mins

Two things are clear about the four aerostats (“balloons”) that have penetrated the skies above US and Canadian territory in recent days. First, that the US authorities knew almost from the start they were Chinese because they intercepted transmissions of the data they were collecting; and second, that Beijing’s officials who authorised the blatant intrusions were not in the least bit concerned about America’s response if they were detected, or if the balloons crashed to earth. Nor, it seems, were they particularly worried about the danger of collisions with airliners: both the Airbus A380 and the far more common Boeing 787-8/9 can operate just above 43,100 feet, while one of the aerostats was shot down at around 40,000 feet.

The reason for China’s brazen balloon launch is simple. Since 1989, the Communist Party’s leaders have learned that Americans are very similar to the Xiongnu nomads the Chinese encountered 2,500 years ago. While formidable warriors, the Xiongnu were easily manipulated once their chiefs became addicted to Chinese silk robes in place of smelly furs, and to alcoholic beverages.

Each time the Party leadership does something outrageous — from the Tiananmen Square Massacre to the mass campaign to forcibly transform Uyghurs and extinguish Hong Kong’s liberties — US sanctions are loudly threatened or even imposed amid talk of decoupling once for all. Until, that is, key members of America’s ruling class emerge to explain the utter necessity of more trade and more financial cooperation, easily enlisting perennially needy political leaders, bankers and brokers, but also prestigious academic institutions whose leaders seem to view the FBI more negatively than China’s GuóānbĂč intelligence service.

They always have good arguments against making a fuss about Chinese misconduct. After Tiananmen, the secular religion of Free Trade was invoked to resume increasingly large investments in Chinese manufacturing, notwithstanding the catastrophic loss of manufacturing employment to Chinese imports. Free trade was supposed to generate increasing numbers of free traders in China, who would undermine, if not overtly resist, the Communist Party’s absurdly ill-fitting Maoist ideology. The same false promises — this time to resume investments in Xinjiang — are once again invoked in Germany and France, while prominent American CEOs, including Apple’s Tim Cook, have resumed their pilgrimages to Beijing and Shenzhen. Woke capitalism, it seems, stops at the water’s edge, overlooking China’s persecutions of entire nations while furiously denouncing solitary incidents at home.

To explain away the latest aerostat outrage, China’s faithful defenders could start by pointing out that, while the minimum orbital altitude for satellites is 160 kilometres (99 miles) above sea level, there is no lower limit to the freedom of movement in space, nor an upward counterpart in sovereign territorial waters out to 12 nautical miles, or 24 with the “contiguous zone” for customs and police enforcement. True, most countries seem to claim unlimited altitude sovereignty. But enforcement is actually a requirement for such claims, and that necessitates territorial air defences that very few countries have, and which the US itself dismantled long ago, scrapping its squadrons of specialised interceptor fighters, countless radars for search and fire control, and batteries of surface-to-air missiles. This time, the offending aerostats were shot down by “air superiority” fighters designed to outfly other fighters.

China’s defenders could also point out that, as far back as 2006, Beijing publicly declared its intention to rely on ”stratospheric airships”, as well as satellites and reconnaissance aircraft. Or they could point out that spy balloons are a common feature in the West. The Franco-Italian Aerostar partnership, for instance, modestly describes itself as “a world leader in the design, manufacture, integration, and operation of stratospheric balloon platforms and airships” — neither of which are likely to be confined to national airspace. And how did the US respond to the 2006 Chinese announcement? With the US-China Agreement on Earth Observation System and Related Data Activities, amicably signed in November 2, 2010, as if Chinese intentions were actually friendly.

Despite the events of the past week, the United States and its allies should not now divert military funds to build enormously costly national air defences specifically designed to detect and shoot down a handful of aerostats as soon as they enter their national airspace. Such defences are justified to defeat aerial attacks, not to see off a few balloons. Instead of guarding their territory, both the United States and its allies must deter intrusions by inducing fears of prompt and effective retaliation in Beijing — first and foremost by further restricting investments in China, as well as technology transfers. This will not be easy. As I write, Italy’s Leonardo aerospace company is still trying to sell airframe technology to the Chinese, while Germany’s Siemens, repository of much of the country’s high-tech material, eagerly invests in China with the help of successive Chancellors to defend it from criticisms.

In the US, meanwhile, the China lobby steps in with its long list of eminent advocates: from Henry Kissinger, who famously called for a US-China “G-2” condominium, to assorted Wall Street moguls led by Ray Dalio, founder of the gigantic Bridgewater investment house. As well as offering their own pearls of wisdom, they dispense ample funds to think tanks that disseminate their views, and obediently exclude dissenters. (According to Wikipedia, I am the inventor of “geo-economics”, but have never been asked to speak at Washington DC’s Geo-Economic Centre, funded by a prominent China investor.)

Of course, the China lobby does not actually defend the Communist Party’s regime. It merely deploys its influence against any serious retaliation for each particular outrage, from the Tiananmen massacre to last week’s balloons. Remarkably, this free-trade crusade is still vigorously advanced even after Xi Jinping’s recent announcement of his goal to build a “country that leads the world in terms of composite national strength and international influence by the middle of the century”. Given this open pursuit of supremacy, what exactly is the justification for investing even a cent or centime in China?

For now, at least, some hope can be found in President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken’s refusal to revoke any of Trump’s unprecedented technology-transfer prohibitions against China, as leading figures in both Silicon Valley and Wall Street loudly demanded. Indeed, Biden even strengthened such measures. But the China lobby will no doubt keep trying to revert to its preferred policies, and Beijing’s balloons will no doubt still lurk on the horizon.


Professor Edward Luttwak is a strategist and historian known for his works on grand strategy, geoeconomics, military history, and international relations.

ELuttwak