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  • Aisha Mohamed

Reality Check: Popping America’s Balloon

The opinions expressed in this article reflect the opinions of its author(s). They do not represent the views of UCL's Diplomacy Society, Diplomacy Review nor The Diplomat.


In a world of guns and nuclear weapons there appears to be a larger threat to diplomatic security: balloons?


Earlier last month on February 4th a US fighter jet shot down, using a $400,000 missile, what the government insists was a ‘Chinese spy balloon’ used for ‘surveillance’. Whilst China claims it was just a weather balloon flying off course, it begs the question was this reaction appropriate?


Indeed, China is not alone in conducting a questionable state of affairs. In 2021 the US Army ‘accidentally’ raided a Bulgarian sunflower oil factory during military exercises, whilst the Italian military ‘accidentally’ fired onto a chicken farm killing 100 chickens. Bizarre moments in military history happen, what is significant is the reaction these events create.


Whilst the US establishment was quick to release snappy announcements, with President Joe Biden refusing to apologise for the drowning of the balloon, Chinese diplomat Wang Yi remarked their behaviour was ‘hysterical’ with a reference to focus on their domestic problems and not divert attention.


Regardless of who is correct, there is, one must admit, some fact in the Chinese statement. There are much greater problems the United States faces than a balloon flying above South Carolina. Just days after the takedown of the plane, on February 18th, a gunman shot 6 people in Mississippi. Combined with rising homelessness and a deteriorating healthcare system, is China really the biggest threat to America?


It also is important to emphasise that spying is not a ‘Chinese problem’. In fact, America has an extensive spying record dating back to the Cold War with aggressive surveillance of almost everything inside (and outside) of Earth, with the use of U-2 spy balloons and drone intrusion up until the present day. Importantly, this spying is not limited to external governments; the United States faces its own surveillance problem where there is widespread, unlawful, mass intrusion of privacy of US citizens themselves. The lack of provisions or safeguards available to Americans has resulted in the FBI bending civil liberties to target and wiretap certain communities and groups without their knowledge. This has been a notable issue for the Muslim community in America following the so called ‘War on Terror’ where taxpayer money has been used on unwarranted surveillance, paying off informants, and interception of phones. Amid all the commotion over a Chinese balloon, it ignores the countless times the United States has terrorised the skies with the saturation of American drones and targeted killings led by the CIA, as seen between 2004 and 2018 between the Afghanistan and Pakistan border where over 500 civilians were killed.


Has the precedent now been set that anything going above a country, balloon or drone, must be frantically shot down using a $400,000 missile? Would America react the same way if their unlawful drones that are currently in surveillance were shot down the same way? It becomes clear America is feeling threatened; their age of global dominance is slowly fading. Whilst the outcome of the analysis of the ‘remains’ of the balloon are undoubtedly set to make headlines again, perhaps we should rather be asking isn’t it finally time to pop America's balloon?



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