Spy or Trial Balloons? China Draws on History to Test the West

By Timothy Furnish Published on February 6, 2023

The People’s Republic of China has one of the three most powerful militaries on earth. Number one in naval forces and active duty military personnel. Second in defense spending. Third in combat aircraft and nuclear weapons. China also now has the world’s number two space program.

So why use balloons? Those are late-18th century technology.

Unless you’ve been carried off by just such a device to a Kansas-adjacent magical land, you know of what I write. A Chinese spy balloon floated over U.S. and Canadian airspace for more than a week, starting January 28. In fact, it traversed much of the continental U.S. before an American fighter plane splashed it off South Carolina on February 4. What in the name of Field Marshall Van Hindenburg has been going on?

Balloons: Quite Good Spy Platforms

It turns out that balloon-borne surveillance equipment, just a few miles up, gathers better data than satellites. These devices are also cheaper, and can loiter over target areas for long periods of time — unlike satellites, which speed by much faster. Balloons also give the sender plausible deniability. Like, for instance, claiming that such was sent out by “civilian weather” researchers. Or “went off course.” Sure, Chinese comrades. It just happened to drift over several American bases housing nuclear ICBMs in Montana and South Dakota. And Nellis Air Force base in Nevada, home of Area 51.

Chinese Balloons: Not Just Over America

Beijing’s self-righteous indignation might be more believable if similar balloons hadn’t been sighted, just yesterday, over Latin America. And almost certainly spying on Japan and India in recent years. In light of those incidents, China appears to be spewing a lot of hot air.

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So, Occam’s Razor points to the balloon(s) being sent by the PRC military. Why? To understand that, or even speculate reasonably, some knowledge of Chinese history is in order.

China’s Historical Mistake #1

First, go back six centuries. The Ming dynasty, during the early 1400s, sent out seven naval expeditions. At first to China’s near-abroad, in southeast Asia. Then as far as India, followed by east Africa and Arabia. They may have even made it to Australia. (But not, despite grandiose claims, the Americas.)

In 1433 the emperor mothballed the fleets as too costly. He chose poorly. For about the same time, on the other end of Eurasia, the Portuguese and Spanish were gearing up for what would prove to be global expansion.

Still, for the first third of the 15th century, these voyages served their purpose. To show the imperial Chinese flag, gather tribute, and impress the “barbarians” with the power of the Middle Kingdom and its ruler, the “Son of Heaven.” (Who needed ego-stroking, China having just a few decades earlier thrown off the Mongol yoke.)

China’s Historical Humiliation

Fast forward four hundred years. During the 19th century Qing China suffered two horrible conflicts. First the Opium Wars, in which Britain facilitated massive opium addiction in China, backed up by superior military force. Both Britain and France took advantage of the Chinese, forcing the Emperor to open up China to their traders and missionaries.

Then came the massively bloody Taipeng Rebellion, which killed some 20 million Chinese. (This was the bloodiest civil war in history, and a Christian eschatological movement to boot.) It was only put down with Western military help, such as that of Charles Gordon (who would die years later fighting the Sudanese Mahdists on behalf of the Ottomans). Little wonder the Chinese refer to the 1800s as the “Century of Humiliation.”

Spy Balloons: Symptom, Not Cause

What do these historical events have to do with modern Chinese spy balloons? Both have been internalized by PRC intellectuals, strategists and politicians as bad choices by previous rulers. Ones that need rectifying. China was the most powerful polity on earth in the 15th century, and could easily have expanded beyond East Asia. But its leadership failed to seize that chance. This mistake set China up for disgrace in the 19th century, beholden to small European countries with more powerful militaries. Something the modern Communist leaders have vowed will not happen again.

The Chinese Communists Aim to Take Over Global Capitalism

So Beijing, while politically Communist, has set its sights on supplanting the U.S. as the hegemon of the global capitalist system. How? By creating an economic trade network across Asia and Africa that rivals the Western-dominated one. This includes the One Belt, One Road plan. The Maritime Silk Road Initiative. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

China’s economy will likely surpass America’s by 2030. And as noted earlier, its defense budget is now second only to ours. And likely more sustainable in the long haul, as the PRC is not $31 trillion in debt.

How Their Spy Balloons Serve Beijing’s Geopolitics

Put in this context, China’s spy balloons make perfect sense. As trial ones. Like the Ming emperor’s ships, they carry China’s banners aloft and yet even farther afield, impress the barbarians and, in this case, showcase the impotence of the American paper tiger — which cannot, or will not, safeguard its own borders. After all, for years now China has been waging its own drug war in America — but one based on fentanyl, not opium. The U.S. government has known this for some time. But Washington is too cowardly to call Beijing on it.

Is it any wonder, then, the Chinese regime feels entirely comfortable sending spy balloons right into American airspace? Senator Marco Rubio was entirely correct that the PRC thinks we are in decline. The ChiComs may even think they can win a war with us by 2025. They may be right about the former. Almost certainly not about the latter, however. But deflating Beijing’s military pretensions won’t be as easy as popping that spy balloon. And it might not be possible at all if this country is still headed by a dementia-riddled, China-compromised gasbag.


Timothy Furnish holds a Ph.D. in Islamic, World and African history from Ohio State University and a M.A. in Theology from Concordia Seminary. He is a former U.S. Army Arabic linguist and, later, civilian consultant to U.S. Special Operations Command. He’s the author of books on the Middle East and Middle-earth, a history professor and sometime media opiner (as, for example, on Fox News Channel’s War Stories: Fighting ISIS). He currently writes for and consults The Stream on International Security matters.

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