At times, the ways people perceive an object betrays more about the people than the object itself. A case in point: The recent saga of the “Chinese spy balloon” may be presented as an allegory of the ever-present threat of airborne Asiatic infiltration, but in reality it tells us far more about the dangerous, paranoid, and absurd heights US Sinophobia has reached.
It all began with a report from the Billings Gazette, which published footage of the now-infamous balloon flying over Montana on Thursday, Feb. 2. A swiftly issued statement from the Pentagon identified the object as a “high altitude surveillance balloon.” Shortly thereafter, the Associated Press reported that a senior official from the Department of Defense had expressed “very high confidence” that the “spy balloon” was of Chinese origin and “flying over sensitive sites to collect information.” In a glaring instance of doublespeak, the AP report further noted that “The defense official said the spy balloon was trying to fly over the Montana missile fields, but the U.S. has assessed that it has ‘limited’ value in terms of providing China intelligence it couldn’t already collect by other means, such through [sic] spy satellites” (emphasis added).
A very clear response from China’s Foreign Ministry confirming their ownership of the “unmanned civilian aircraft”—better known as a weather balloon—was almost instantaneously dismissed by the Pentagon and pundits alike. Something else, they asserted, something more sinister, must be afoot. Never mind that China’s statement of regret that the balloon flew off course due to “force majeure” is the simplest and most rational explanation, given that the eastward atmospheric jetstream connecting Asia to North America flows exactly along the same path the balloon took over Alaska, then Montana, and eventually to the coast of South Carolina, where it met its demise via F-22 missile strike. This would, after all, not be the first time similar aircraft have accidentally entered the airspace of foreign nations, as illustrated by the 1998 incident of a Canadian weather balloon that ended up flying over Russia, Norway, and finally landing in Finland after being blown off-course.
Following the innuendo-laden signals spewing from the mainstream press, a feverish chorus of frenzied denunciations frothed forth: The likes of Nikki Hayley and Reps. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) and Marjorie Taylor-Greene (R-GA) took to Twitter to call for the balloon to be shot down.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) took a step further than her colleagues and declared the Communist Party of China itself “a threat to our existence.” Yet the creativity had only just begun. Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) broke out his set of pins and string to link the “direct assault on our national sovereignty” presented by the looming balloon to “open borders,” a charge quickly parroted by his peers.
Other commentators echoed the recent conspiracies peddled by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, among others, that the balloon was just one part of a larger, unseen Chinese espionage offensive carried out by thousands of supposed “party agents” operating in American universities (better known as international students and faculty). And, in a bid for the sparkling crown of foil, Gov. Greg Gianforte (R-MT) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) connected the dastardly dirigible to another favorite imagined menace of the terminally Sinophobic—Tik Tok.
Such rabid antics are perfectly in character for Republican demagogues like these, but it’s critical to note that the racist psychosis on display in the past weeks was very much bipartisan. After all, it was mainstream media and Biden’s Pentagon who lit the spark that grew into an inferno of Republican alarmism. And as the situation rapidly spiraled towards its most absurd and pernicious outcome, Democrats and the liberal wing of corporate media only fanned the flames. The wisdom of shooting down the balloon, the actuality of purportedly widespread Chinese espionage, or even the purpose of all the fuss was never questioned. Biden defenders simply concocted a ridiculous pissing contest over how many Chinese weather balloons Trump had let slide.
Media coverage impressed little difference between outlets often considered to be on opposite sides of the political spectrum. New York Times White House correspondent David Sanger bemoaned the “gall” the balloon symbolized. Bloomberg cited “officials” and “people familiar with the matter” to pronounce the balloon part of a “broader Chinese spying program.” The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal called the unmanned aircraft a “trial balloon” and lobbed a sarcastic response to China’s clarification: “Somehow a weather balloon ended up near U.S. missile bases. Sure.”
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken declared the wicked weather device a violation of both U.S. “sovereignty” and “international law.” In a kind of aeronautical rendition of the Monroe Doctrine, the Pentagon was sure to announce the discovery of a “second spy balloon” floating over “Latin America.” Where exactly this auxiliary atrocious aircraft was actually located, or why it was any of the business of the U.S. military, was not immediately expounded upon (it turned out to be Colombia, where the US has been intervening militarily since 1947).
And, of course, as is now widely known, the Biden administration struck down the original weather balloon over the Atlantic with a $400,000 Raytheon-manufactured AIM-9X sidewinder missile fired from an F-22 Raptor, which costs $85,325 per flight hour, according to Popular Mechanics. Following the vanquishing of the weather balloon, a number of Democrat-aligned pundits and lawmakers were quick to fawn over the virility and heroism of their commander-in-chief.
Of course, the drama did not end with the downing of just one balloon. A flurry of unidentified flying object sightings gripped the news cycle over the weekend of Feb. 10-12th. The US Air Force shot down three such objects, while offering scant detail about what they might be or who they might belong to.
Finally, on Tuesday Feb. 14, the Pentagon sheepishly admitted that they were probably just “benign” research or commercial balloons. The same day, a Washington Post report revealed that the Department of Defense had tracked the first Chinese weather balloon from its launch on Hainan and noted the influence of “atypical weather conditions” in producing its “errant path”—in other words, US officials had always known the balloon posed no threat. Of course, the damage has already been done. Mass paranoia over an allegedly ever-pervasive network of Chinese espionage has been successfully whipped up, and millions of Americans will probably never look at the sky the same way again.
As Chinese diaspora media collective Qiao Collective noted in a tweet, “US officials are admitting that China may have been telling the truth about their off-course research balloon. But the mission in further escalating US-China conflict and conditioning the US public to think of China as enemy #1 has been achieved.”
Imperial fantasies of self-defense
It is a simple fact that China has never had, does not possess, and demonstrates no designs for foreign military bases in the western hemisphere. In comparison, the US oversees a vast archipelago of hundreds of military bases across the Asian continent, with some 375,000 troops under the Indo-Pacific Command specifically stationed across 200 bases from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to the Aleutian Islands in the Northern Pacific. This includes about 100,000 troops occupying South Korea, Japan (principally Okinawa, or Ryukyu/Lyuchu), and Guahan, better known by its colonial name, Guam. China does not have a military record in the Americas; whereas since WWII the US has perpetrated incalculable violence through its wars against Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, and propped up authoritarian regimes from Indonesia and the Philippines to South Korea and Taiwan—regimes that executed anticommunist campaigns of elimination, with death tolls in the millions (all with US knowledge, support, and oversight).
Since President Obama’s “Pivot to Asia,” fortifying the already immense US military occupation of maritime Asia and the Indian and Pacific Oceans has become a top priority for successive US administrations. Over the past decade, US joint military exercises and other demonstrations of force have grown in size and frequency across the region. Regular “Freedom of Navigation Patrols” have become a norm in disputed waters and airspace in the South China Sea as well, with the US and its allies, particularly Australia and Japan, regularly deploying warships and warplanes into areas not only claimed by China but also Vietnam and other nations.
In a press conference on Feb. 13, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin clarified that 657 US “close-in reconnaissance” sorties against China had been detected in 2022 alone, with 64 sorties in the South China Sea just in January and ten documented incidents of US weather balloons entering Chinese airspace since last year.
US weapons sales and militarization in the region have also grown year after year—with the Pentagon reporting a 50% increase in arms sales in FY 2022 driven by sales in Ukraine and East Asia. Weapons deals with Taipei like the $180 million package inked last December are particularly straining to the US-China relationship and to regional peace, as they undermine the One China Policy which has served as the legal basis for peace in the Taiwan Straits for decades.
The most recent US affront to regional stability came in the form of a new military deal with the Philippines granting the Pentagon access to four military bases in the archipelago. Incidentally, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was in the Philippines to finalize the deal when the Department of Defense received its earliest reports of the purported “spy balloon” entering US airspace. Just a few days after the initial balloon drama unfolded, the US also announced a similar military deal was in the works with the government of Papua New Guinea.
Just who, then, is currently posing the greatest military threat in the US-China relationship? One country has had enough troops at the other’s doorstep to launch an invasion with minimal preparation since the end of WWII. The other is accused of a flagrant attack on national sovereignty over an errant weather balloon.
It isn’t difficult to surmise the political aims achieved by the bipartisan fixation on the balloon. Simply put, the US is inflating non-events into geopolitical showdowns and stoking popular panic to fortify the baseless notion of an imminent Chinese threat and cover up its own project of encirclement and belligerence against China.
The fear of Asiatic invasion has been used throughout US history to justify imperialism abroad and white supremacy at home—after all, American designs in Asia precede the formation of the republic itself. In an 1879 speech before Congress arguing in favor of the Fifteen Passenger Bill, a forerunner to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, then-Senator and future Secretary of State James Blaine bluntly summed up the stakes of restricting Chinese immigration: “the Anglo-Saxon race will possess the Pacific slope or the Mongolians will possess it.” By then, the US Navy had already been patrolling the waters of the Yangtze River for over 20 years along with a coalition of imperialist powers—one of the many humiliating concessions forced upon China as a result of the Opium Wars.
Yet in spite of the reality of a US military presence within the borders of China, not to mention the semi-colonial relationship underpinned by American gunboats that drained wealth and labor from China to the West, US lawmakers and laypeople alike found in immigration restrictions a form of self-defense from an imagined Chinese (or “Mongolian,” per Sen. Blaine) invasion. Simultaneously, the actual advancement of US imperialism in China (and Asia generally) through military means was presented in defensive terms as well, perhaps most clearly when the US teamed up with various European powers and Japan to invade China in 1900 to crush the Yi Ho Tuan or Boxer Rebellion.
The broader ideological mechanics of fear—specifically, fear of China—at work within American political rhetoric has changed little, even if historical conditions have changed by leaps and bounds, over the past century and a half. China is no longer a semi-colonial country carved up between cooperating imperialist powers. Rather, it is a rising great power in its own right—one that is increasingly outpacing the US on multiple fronts, from scientific development to defense capabilities, environmental stewardship, and even international influence. Contradictions notwithstanding, China has opened up an alternative path for development for many formerly colonized nations outside the debt-saddling neocolonialism of the IMF and World Bank.
Two key characteristics of nineteenth-century US Sinophobia persist in the contemporary period: (1) it is still the US that actually poses a direct military threat to China, rather than the inverse, and (2) fantasies of self-defense against a “Chinese threat” continue to animate US white supremacy at “home” and abroad, whether in the form of the FBI’s anti-Chinese witch hunts and anti-Asian racial violence, or through military power projection in the Asia-Pacific.
… And is the “Chinese balloon” in the room with us now?
Bipartisan scaremongering over Chinese espionage is so effective because it draws from a longstanding, culturally embedded motif of Asiatic underhandedness and duplicity, probably most famously wielded during the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII. Faced with a rapidly transforming world, today’s China hawks reach for this old racial comfort to explain the changing state of international affairs. Because US dominance is presumed to be righteous and natural, the only explanation for China’s rise is that it must be cheating.
As with all hypocrisies, self-awareness is nowhere to be found here. Lest we forget, Australian journalist Julian Assange will imminently stand trial for violations of the Espionage Act after decades of persecution by the US government. Among the revelations made public by WikiLeaks was a glimpse of the planetary scale of US spycraft, including against leaders of allied nations like Germany’s former Chancellor Angela Merkel. Moreover, just a few years ago, the CIA admitted that it lost dozens of assets in China from 2010-2012 after compromised communications revealed the identities of US spies to the Chinese government.
The conspiratorial dimensions of contemporary Sinophobia both help to manufacture consent for the US’s low-grade, but ever-building war on China, and to provide a balm for Americans of all political persuasions who understand the decline of US power implicitly and mourn the loss of an imagined prestige. Projection, after all, is often a defense against the truths apparent in self-reflection.
China did not deceive the US out of its position of world supremacy. One need only make a basic comparison of the last 20 years to see how the US has manufactured its own decline. Since 9/11, the US has waged catastrophic war after catastrophic war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya, not to mention countless covert military operations and drone campaigns around the world (particularly on the African continent). Simultaneously, neoliberalism has led the US to strip down the functions of its own state to domestic policing, international military terror, and ever-expanding handouts to its capitalist class. And on the economic front, the US has made little effort for most of the past two decades to develop its real economy, instead becoming increasingly dependent on financialization and parasitism over the world economy to keep profits high. Oligarchs may be living large, but for millions of working people in the US, little has really improved since the devastating 2008 crash.
Over this same period, China has dedicated itself to its internal development, focusing on infrastructure, technology, education, and the growth of its real economy. China has not expended trillions of dollars on warfare or made warmongering the cornerstone of its international relations. Rather, it has focused on trade and its ability to produce goods for the world and provide investment to other nations as the foundation of its rapidly deepening bilateral ties.
Most recently, the era of Xi Jinping has also seen a concerted effort to crack down on corruption and eliminate “absolute” poverty from the nation by raising the incomes of hundreds of millions of people. Those who claim that a new Chinese hegemony is already here are premature, and moreover are probably misunderstanding the character of China’s rise—unlike with the western superpowers that preceded it, as China rises, it is not rising alone. What we are seeing today are the early signs of a paradigmatic shift in the western-centered capitalist world system that will likely result in a new era of international politics much different from anything seen in the past 500 years. It’s a brave new world, and the US is principally concerned with preventing its emergence.
Herein lies the grave peril the US poses to the world at this historical juncture: Dying empires do not go gentle into that good night, and the US is no exception. What’s worse is that this particular empire possesses sufficient firepower to share its twilight with the whole world. Our historical moment is both reminiscent of past epochs and dangerously unprecedented.
This most recent episode with China’s weather balloon would be purely comical if it didn’t portend the possibility of far more disastrous decisions to come. How far will the United States go to stand against the tide of history—and is it willing to even terminate history itself rather than live in a future without hegemony? The bloodlust of the American ruling class should not be ignored. There is little reason to believe the unrepentant butchers of Fallujah and Mỹ Lai would not reprise their crimes at devastatingly greater scales to protect the world they built on barbarism.
Judging by its recent behavior through this balloon crisis, there’s little indication that the US state will divert from its current path on its own. The catastrophe in East Palestine, Ohio is perhaps the starkest example possible. Norfolk Southern, Wall Street-owned railroad corporation has essentially conducted the equivalent of a chemical weapons attack on a town of 5,000 people in close proximity to a major waterway. This incident could have been prevented had Congress taken heed of railroad workers’ demands for safer working conditions, better staffing, and better treatment just a few months before. However, rather than rapidly mobilize resources to protect those affected by the blast, investigate the scope of the ecological damage, and prosecute the parties responsible, the response from the ruling class has been to essentially downplay the story, urge residents to return to their very likely poisoned homes, and arrest a journalist who asked too many questions.
In the meantime, mainstream media served up a bevy of strange reports of unidentified flying objects shot down by the Air Force over the weekend, while coverage of the worst US industrial disaster since Three Mile Island was comparatively scant (though media coverage of the derailment in East Palestine has increased in recent days). The situation before us clearly begs for a measure of introspection: who, we must ask ourselves, is the greater threat to the average resident of the United States, the government flying wayward weather balloons over our heads, or the one allowing corporations to poison us en masse? Perhaps it’s high time for the US to set aside its civilizational and racial arrogance and admit it has much to learn from China—both in terms of how to actually run a society, and how to depose an oppressive ruling class.