"It’s just a simple story of everyday superpower folk getting it wrong, and apologies are due all round."
A fighter jet flies past the remnants of a large balloon after it was shot down above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina, near Myrtle Beach, on Feb. 4, 2023. Credit: Courtesy of Chad Fish via AP

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The United States has been having “a bit of a floaty-bag problem over its airspace,” as South Africa’s Daily Maverick news website put it.

Indeed it has. Four balloons or other flying “objects” shot down by the U.S. Air Force over American or Canadian territory in eight days got everybody’s attention and made the already fragile state of U.S.-Chinese relations a good deal worse. But it all turns out to be an innocent mistake. Sort of.

The first unknown flying object, a big Chinese balloon — about 230 feet high, with an instrument payload the size of several buses — was obviously in the wrong place. It was clearly designed to gather “sigint” (signals intelligence), but flying it across the United States, even more than 12 miles up, was just asking for trouble. Are the Chinese really that stupid?

No, they aren’t. Mumbled explanations to the Washington Post by embarrassed American officials who must remain nameless have now revealed that the U.S. intelligence services saw the balloon launched from Hainan island off the southern Chinese coast in late January — and it was headed straight east for the U.S.-owned island of Guam.

The Chinese balloon had propellers and a rudder, so it was steerable within limits. China has actually sent balloons past Guam before, and the U.S. didn’t complain, because it does the same sort of thing with reconnaissance aircraft, skimming along the edge of Chinese airspace. It’s all part of the Great Game.

However, this time was different. On Jan. 24, when the balloon was passing directly south of Japan, it veered north and began speeding up. Exceptionally cold air over northern China and Japan had drawn the high-altitude jet stream south, and it scooped up the balloon, also high in the stratosphere, and carried it north and east across the Pacific.

The winds were too strong for the Chinese balloon’s limited propulsion system to counter, so on Jan. 28 it entered Alaskan airspace and continued east into Canada, where it was then blown south by more strong winds, entering U.S. airspace again over Montana.

The U.S. authorities were initially reluctant to shoot the balloon down, because they knew the whole story. But they wouldn’t say what they knew, because that would reveal U.S. surveillance capabilities, so the political pressure to “do something” grew. Finally, President Joe Biden gave the shoot-down order — waiting until the balloon was safely over the Atlantic.

So it’s just a simple story of everyday superpower folk getting it wrong, and apologies are due all round. But the Chinese won’t elaborate on their original story that it was just an errant weather balloon, and the U.S. won’t apologize at all.

Meanwhile, what about the other three “objects” that were shot down? They were much smaller, and came in a variety of shapes and shades: “cylindrical, silver gray, with no sign of visible propulsion”; “a small, metallic balloon with a tethered payload below it”; “octagonal, with strings attached.”

They were shot down, too, said John Kirby, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, “out of an abundance of caution.” But on Tuesday he had to go out on the White House stage again and confess that those three had probably been completely harmless. “Benign,” as he put it.

“These could be balloons that were simply tied to commercial or research entities and therefore benign,” he said. In fact, this was the “leading explanation” under consideration. The “entities” involved will face very serious legal problems if they are ever identified, but we can consider the “floaty-bag problem” to be solved.            

Was there any lasting damage? Yes, of course, there was.

These incidents held the U.S. media’s attention for more than a week. The details will quickly fade from the American public’s memory, but the impression will remain that somebody, and probably somebody Chinese, has been spying on them in their homes.

This will not help in the task of calming the growing hostility between the world’s two greatest powers.

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Gwynne Dyer, Opinion columnist

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries.