Picture the scene. It’s early 2019. You’re settling into your cinema seat, popcorn in hand (Sweet and salty, because you’re not a philistine). As the lights go down, your excitement for the biggest blockbuster of the decade only grows. An eclectic cast of heroes, a seemingly unassailable antagonist, the fate of the world at stake: what’s not to love? But, crucially, your shoes aren’t sticking to the Coke-covered carpets of your local Odeon. Instead, you’re in a Wanda, China’s premier cinema chain. And you’re not about to watch the record-breaking Avengers: Endgame. Rather, you’re waiting for the trailers to roll before Wandering Earth, China’s latest cinematic sensation.
Was it a great movie? Not particularly. But what it did do was break Chinese box-office records, quickly becoming their highest grossing film of all time. So, with the sequel only coming out last week, you can understand why many Chinese people had the movie on their minds. Thus, when news broke of an unmanned balloon appearing in American skies, Chinese social media users responded not with hysteria but with a novel nickname for the wayward rogue. 流浪气球 – The Wandering Ballon.
In many ways, the parallel is fitting. The situation has engrossed the viewing public. And to many, the Wandering Balloon’s violation of American sovereignty seems to have raised the political stakes to blockbuster levels. China’s Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng accused the US of ‘severely impacting and undermining the progress made by the two sides to stabilise relations’. From his side of the Pacific, America has gunned down a ‘civilian airship’ and now refuses to return Chinese property to its owners.
Thus, when news broke of an unmanned balloon appearing in American skies, Chinese social media users responded not with hysteria but with a novel nickname for the wayward rogue. 流浪气球 – The Wandering Ballon.
Whilst many have written this off as a whole lot of hot air (pun very much intended), Xie’s demands to get his balloon back reveals a real concern for the CPC. They have always maintained that they are more upstanding than the imperialist West. A spokesperson for the foreign ministry repeated on Tuesday that the PRC ‘strictly adheres to international law and respects the sovereignty of other countries’. The fear amongst the CPC, then, is that analysis of recovered debris will give incontrovertible evidence that China plays just as dirty as the Americans. For the CPC, the moral high ground is at stake.
Similar box-office drama can be found if we cross the Pacific. Certainly, the explosive destruction of the balloon on Friday would not have looked out of place in the latest Top Gun instalment. An F-22 Raptor with one shot to land an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile on a tiny moving target threatening the Land of the Free – no doubt the responsible pilot felt like Tom Cruise for an afternoon.
The greatest ramification of this existential threat to the American Way was, of course, the cancellation of Anthony Blinken’s visit to the PRC. Some western commentators echoed Foreign Minister Xie’s worries that this marked the end of warming relations, US-China cooperation seemingly destined to slip further and further towards Cold War levels. Many have drawn comparisons to the 1960 U-2 incident, where an American spy plane was shot down over the USSR. After the plane was downed, Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev cancelled the ongoing Four Powers Summit, plunging relations across the Iron Curtain into ever darker territory.
The fear amongst the CPC, then, is that analysis of recovered debris will give incontrovertible evidence that China plays just as dirty as the Americans.
But the current situation isn’t like the plot of Top Gun, nor are we stuck in 1960. Back then, the U-2 represented the cutting edge of espionage. It was a U-2 plane that took the vital images that instigated the Cuban Missile Crisis, saving the world from taking another step closer to Mutually Assured Destruction (or pushing us towards it, depending on your perspective).
Now, however, surveillance balloons are the least of anyone’s worries. More than 70 Chinese reconnaissance satellites are in orbit. The CPC’s international news outlet, Global Times, recently published a panegyric on these satellites. It showed the detailed images they had captured of the epicentre of the Turkish earthquake, vital to understanding the catastrophe. Any information that one balloon could have revealed pales in comparison to China’s globe-encompassing network of these state-of-the-art satellites.
Of course, the US government knows this. In fact, their National Security Council revealed that this is apparently the fifth time an unmanned Chinese balloon has strayed into American airspace since 2017. And despite his recent midterm defeat and flagging approval ratings, President Biden has tried to distance himself from the balloon as much as possible. What could be an easy point for Biden to win over Republicans who want him to stand up more to the Red Menace has gone largely ignored. The President only alluded to the situation in his State of the Union address, and actively denied reporter’s suggestions that the balloon changed the nature of US-China relations.
Any information that one balloon could have revealed pales in comparison to China’s globe-encompassing network of these state-of-the-art satellites.
America knows that the balloon doesn’t matter. For its part, the US military had over 150 reconnaissance satellites orbiting the Earth in 2020, a number that has surely only increased. Both sides know that aerial espionage has become a relic. The surveillance game is now played in outer space. And even that is becoming less and less important in comparison to cyberspace intelligence gathering.
So, maybe the best box-office analogy for this whole trivial situation actually comes from 2009. Like in the movie Up, watching this balloon-centred story unfold may have begun sombrely, but the core of it is actually pretty light-hearted. The comedic highlight, for me, was the Kansas City sheriff’s statement pleading with eager citizens not to try shooting down the balloon themselves, offering some sage advice: ‘What goes up will come down, including your bullets’.
But, no matter if you think ‘Balloongate’ best resembles the high stakes of Wandering Earth, the jingoist bombast of Top Gun, or the wonderful absurdity of Up, one thing remains true. This situation is a fiction. It has the appearance of something that might be real, that might affect present politics, but it is simply insignificant. This balloon has had a miniscule impact on international relations and intranational politics alike.
Don’t take this as a statement of reassurance, though. The real reconnaissance, the real politics, the real drama, all occur off of your timeline. The forces that actually shape the world and its future reside in places we don’t see. So, when you’re next getting comfortable to watch a movie, know that the real show is taking place behind the screen.