After Restricting Balloon Overflights For 25 Years, China’s Protests Wear Thin

Hours after U.S. jets shot down a sensor-packed Chinese surveillance balloon in U.S. airspace, China showed no sign of backing down, releasing a statement expressing “strong dissatisfaction and protest over the use of force” in downing what it called a “civilian unmanned airship.”

Claiming that the surveillance balloon was “civilian in nature and entered the U.S. due to force majeure,” and that the shootdown was an “obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice,” China threatened that it “reserves the right to make further responses if necessary”.

The statement is hypocritical at best, since China knows that countries have long demanded balloons obtain overflight rights before entering national airspace—and that American recreational balloonists have previously been forced down—and even shot down for unexpected overflights.

China Has A History Of Restricting Balloon Overflights:

China has a storied decades-long legacy of denying balloon overflights and challenging balloonist assertions of force majeure.

In the late 1990’s, the West used a series of dangerous “challenges” to help develop the very same balloon technologies China is currently exploiting for surveillance purposes today. Back then, well-funded aerospace daredevils took to the skies to cross the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and, by 1997-1998, teams were actively attempting to get their gas bags to safely circumnavigate the globe.

Though China was “opening” at the time, the country put such a high value on maintaining territorial integrity that it repeatedly forced balloonists racing to circumnavigate the globe to either halt early or change to less favorable courses. One balloon, denied entry into China, crash-landed in a Myanmar field.

Those days, China didn’t hesitate to talk tough. When a ballooning team led by British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson was blown off-course and entered Chinese airspace without permission—and then compounded matters by refusing to comply with Chinese orders to land the balloon, China ominously warned it “will not take responsibility for the consequences” if Branson’s balloon continued.

Only high-level diplomatic interventions from both the UK and the United States—as well as a personal plea from UK Prime Minister Tony Blair—kept Branson’s team in the air.

In 1999, China finally had a trouble-free overflight by a Swiss balloon—the Breitling Orbiter 3. Even then, after China realized the balloons were simply high-profile civilian efforts, the Swiss team was ordered to stay on the periphery of the country and expressly forbidden to overfly central China.

In light of China’s active management of prior balloon overflights through Chinese airspace, the protests over America’s downing of China’s massive “bus-sized” surveillance “airship” ring a little hollow.

ditional American revelations that China is currently operating similar balloons elsewhere and has previously operated several spy balloons over the United States further puncture China’s tone-deaf response to the U.S. shootdown.

Trespassing Balloons Do Get Shot Down:

Suggesting that the U.S. downing of the spy balloon violated “international practice” is particularly outrageous as American balloonists have been shot down before, while flying in countries that overzealously protected national airspace.

In Belarus, two American balloonists, participating in the 1995 Gordon Bennett Balloon Race and flying according to a flight plan approved by Belarusian authorities, were shot down. Two other American teams were ordered down and then fined for not having appropriate visas.

An official multi-national investigation into the incident identified a host of mistakes and safety issues, including a lack of communication between the balloon and Belarus air traffic control. The balloon operators had turned off their transponder and were unresponsive to warnings. The balloon itself, to Belarusian officials, looked like a drifting aerostat or sounding balloon from Poland, and were too hasty in shooting down the aircraft.

As the two Americans neared a military base and restricted airspace, officials, alarmed by the lack of response from the balloon, ordered a helicopter gunship to intercept and ultimately down the balloon.

While unfortunate—and a product of several errors on the part of the race organizers, the balloon crew and the Belarusian military—the shootdown was legal, and well within the norms of international behavior.

The real reason for China’s umbrage is that the country is upset that America is pushing back against a traditional Chinese influence-building tactic. China loves to appropriate and reset long-held behavioral norms in one portion of the global commons after another. By denying Chinese unrestricted employment of the upper atmosphere, the world can expect a strong Chinese reaction, including, potentially, an attempt to pressure or even down surveillance aircraft operating in international airspace China illegally claims.

China is undoubtably concerned by this show of American resolve. The realization that U.S. aircraft can destroy a complex sensor balloon with a relatively low-cost AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile must be an ugly shock, and, as more Sidewinder-armed countries start pushing back against unilateral Chinese reinterpretations of global norms, it raises the prospect that, in a matter of hours, not just China’s globe-trotting spy balloons will start disappearing, but a whole tactical toolbox China has long used to cow civil society is about to go away.

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