The illegal overflight of a Chinese weather balloon from the western to eastern seaboards of the United States between February 1 to 4, 2023 sparked political and media hysteria. After three days of one-upmanship between Republican and Democrat parliamentarians, relayed continuously by Fox News, the White House took a decision. The balloon, reportedly the size of three buses, was shot down off the coast of South Carolina by an air-to-air missile fired from an F-22 fighter jet as shown in footage delivered “live” to all television channels. The pinnacle of this grotesque performance came when President Joe Biden publicly praised the US armed forces. The pilots of the Battle of Midway, who achieved real feats of bravery, must have turned in their graves.
The Chinese claimed it was a technical incident while the Americans were indignant at such a violation of their airspace (at an altitude where no aircraft, civil or military, flies) by a balloon regarded as an espionage vehicle. Does the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have unrestricted access to data collected by Chinese weather balloons? It’s possible.
That being said, the Pentagon explained that this was not the first such incident. But the others – probably involving smaller and therefore less visible balloons – have always been settled discreetly between American and Chinese officials.
As soon as the balloon entered American airspace, the Chinese apologized. But their voices went unheard amid the media brouhaha. The incident had to pumped up.
In this modern age, do unintentional military blunders still happen? Yes, of course! I personally witnessed, on May 7, 1999, shortly before midnight, the bombardment by the US Air Force of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade (3 dead). It was during America’s war against Serbia to force it to give up Kosovo for the benefit of the Albanian-speaking secessionists. The Pentagon apologized flatly for this blunder, due to an error in coordinates. The Americans were not believed by the people of Beijing, who began to demonstrate violently in front of the American embassy. I never believed the conspiracy theories – relayed at the time by the British press – that claimed the American strike had been intentional.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio fell headlong into the trap of conspiracy theory. He explained that the Chinese had deliberately sent this balloon to embarrass the American president before his speech on the State of the Union, which is to be delivered Tuesday February 7 before Congress. Well then…
This political storm in a teacup would have remained without importance if it had not led to serious diplomatic consequences. Secretary Blinken felt compelled to cancel his visit to Beijing which was scheduled for February 5.
The head of US diplomacy has crucial issues to discuss with his Chinese interlocutors: can the two superpowers work together to end the Russian-Ukrainian conflict; establish a common code of conduct in the South China Sea, at a time when the Pentagon is reopening bases in the northern Philippines, facing the islets illegally seized and militarized by the PLA; to cement the status quo on Taiwan (no independence of the island, but also no use of force by Beijing to recover it); to achieve economic, commercial, financial competition that is healthy because it is not hegemonic?
It is always bad for public opinion to sabotage diplomacy. The first always heats up very quickly, while the second is settled over the long term, patiently seeking balances.
In July 1870, a misleading dispatch from Bismarck turned public opinion white hot and calling for war against Prussia. It was all the crazier since the French army was unprepared and the King of Prussia, who had just made a diplomatic concession, did not want war (unlike his Chancellor).
In July 1914, the Viennese press, fuelled by a warmongering chief-of-staff, went out of their way to demand punishing Serbia. An investigation concluded, however, that Serbia was not responsible for the attack in Sarajevo on June 28. Instead of giving time for diplomacy to settle matters, Austria-Hungary took the exact opposite path. Two weeks later, the Great War broke out.
In August 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin incident was seized upon by President Johnson to enter the Vietnam War, which ended 11 years later with an ignominious withdrawal.
Nothing is worse for peace than the government of public opinion.