Spy balloon triggers fascination, amazement, and one recurring question: What's going on with China?

Who knew that a single balloon could trigger a nation? But this month's Chinese Spy Balloon hysteria certainly did just that, as the country - and the whole world - watched with fascination as the balloon slowly drifted its way eastward until it was finally downed off of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and subsequently collected and analyzed by everyone from the FBI to the U.S. intelligence services to the U.S. Navy. 

Western Today recently chatted with WWU Associate Professor of Political Science Kristen Parris, whose research focuses on modern China, about what China gains from their balloon program  - now rumored to have flown over more than 40 countries - where this fits into China's rise into superpower status, and now that the program is public knowledge across the world, where China and the United States go from here.


WT: Intelligence gathering is usually a clandestine affair. If the public finds out about it, it usually means something went wrong - such as Francis Gary Powers getting shot down in his U2 spy plane over the Soviet Union in 1960. Where does China go from here now that this program has been exposed, and how might it change their current diplomatic strategy in the region?

KP:  When civilians on the ground can see your information gathering aircraft, then something has definitely gone wrong. The immediate questions that some China watchers asked were: Why now? Did President Xi Jinping know? Some speculated that it was the work of rogue actors, perhaps within the military, seeking to undermine President Xi’s efforts to reduce tensions with the party state. More likely the fiasco was simply a series of unfortunate events wherein one arm of China’s massive party state did not really know what the other was doing, combined with unexpected weather.  China’s party-state is huge and unwieldy. It would not be at all surprising if Xi, even in his role as the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, really did not know.  China’s official expression of regret after the discovery of the balloon was a very unusual admission that “mistakes were made.” The outrage in the face of the shoot-down is predictable. Mirroring a similar fear in the US, the last thing anyone within the party-state apparatus wants is to be accused of is “being soft on the US.”  As long as the US responses are measured, I expect that the balloon mess will blow over (ha!) and that the two governments will work on ways to manage what has become a very fragile and volatile relationship. 

WT: How do intelligence-gathering operations like these -- even ones that aren't under the radar, no pun intended -- help China assert itself on the global stage?

KP:  The balloons (when not discovered) are able to linger over military sites and gather information that might not be readily available from satellites -- because of their capacity for higher resolution photographs, for example. In this way China gains enhanced strategic planning capacity that can bolster its ability to project power globally.  At least as important, China has employed a variety of strategies to gain access to economic information and technological know-how. Beyond outright economic espionage, foreign investors have been required to share intellectual property rights with their Chinese partner, which provides access to useful technology.  China’s amazing bullet train system was built in a joint venture with a Japanese company. While China has now become the preeminent global partner for railroad projects, Japan asserts that the underlying technology was reverse engineered by the Chinese company, which claimed it as its own. None of this is to say that China has not built its own economic miracle, but systems of technology are increasingly integrated and China has benefited from that.

WT: Do things like "Balloongate" and the war in the Ukraine push the formerly bitter enemies of Russia and China closer together?

KP:  The relationship between China and Russia has been growing closer for some years before Russia invaded Ukraine.  Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, he has met with Putin far more than any other leader in the world and they seem to have developed a good rapport. In fact, just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the two signed a statement announcing that there were “no limits” in the Sino-Russian cooperation. Of course, there are really are limits to this relationship (note that it is not a formal military alliance or pact) but the statement indicates closer ties than we have seen between the two countries since the 1950s. China has no formal security alliances, and Xi clearly is seeking to balance against the US, which the Chinese leadership sees as attempting to contain China’s growing power.

WT: In the big picture, how much does something like the spy balloon impact the relations between the U.S. and China? Is it mostly posturing, or have things taken a concrete turn for the worst?

KP: I think that it is mostly posturing at this point, but the balloon incident (and now incidents) can have a longer-term effect.  By riling up the hard liners on both sides (even creating unusual agreement between Democrats and Republicans in Congress) it has the potential to further exacerbate an already difficult relationship.

WT: Last question for you. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the dismantling of the world's colonial empires after World War II, the United States has been left as the world's last "superpower." Some say China and India are approaching that level now - what do you think, and how could their rise impact the U.S.?

KP: US power is in relative (if not absolute) decline. China’s economy is now the second largest economy in the world, its military will soon be a match for the US in East Asia, and it is extending its partnerships in the world.  While the US has long been the dominant power in East Asia, things are changing.  Xi Jinping’s increasingly assertive behavior toward Taiwan as well as in the South China Sea presents a real challenge for the US. The rapid movement from increasing tension to Cold War rhetoric is troubling. India is also changing the dynamic in Asia. Not only is India a party to disputes in the South China Sea but recently there have been small clashes between India and China along their disputed border. The world is a far less settled place than it was just ten years ago. Nobody wants a war, but the potential to stumble into war is real and the ability for the US to respond effectively is more limited.  At the same time, and more optimistically, there is the possibility that cooler heads will prevail and that newly powerful China and India can work with the US  to address the climate crisis.


Kristen Parris earned her master’s degree in East Asian Studies and her doctorate in Political Science from Indiana University.  She joined the Political Science Department at WWU in 1991 and serves on the Department’s Curriculum and Scholarship committees. Her research interests include Chinese politics (local governance and governance), state/society relations, and citizenship and state building.  She has traveled extensively and conducted research in China and is a member of the WWU Center for East Asian Studies, an interdisciplinary program that draws upon the expertise of more than 20 faculty from across the university. Find out more about the East Asian Studies Program at WWU here.