The US-China balloon row is nothing but a load of hot air

Countries, even friendly ones, spy on one another. Washington should quickly move on to more pressing issues

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The Chinese balloon that a US fighter shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday has caused outrage in America. Republicans in the House of Representatives were initially going to pass a resolution condemning President Joe Biden for not taking it out while it was drifting over the country – which was prudent, given the amount of debris that ended up scattered – but are now focussing all their ire on China, which maintains that it is not a spy balloon but a weather-monitoring device that had blown off course. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a keenly awaited visit to Beijing over what he called “a violation of our sovereignty” and an “unacceptable and irresponsible action”.

It is a charade in which all the American actors appear happy to play their part – since any surprise and consternation at this infringement, if that is what it was, are entirely confected. For of course China is spying on the US. Everyone knows this and has known for years. Just as the US has been spying on China for years, and was revealed by Edward Snowden to have been breaking into the networks of the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei back in 2014. Any suggestion that it is fine when the US is doing the spying but not other countries stands up to scrutiny no better than Richard Nixon’s famous phrase, “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal” – and he was, of course, brought down over what originated as a spying scandal.

The US spied on the Soviet Union for decades. The U2 incident in 1960, when an American spy plane was shot down over Russia, is still widely remembered. Then it was the US that tried to pretend it was a civilian weather research aircraft, until the Soviets produced photos of their military bases that the plane had captured.

It is a charade in which all the American actors appear happy to play their part

But it is not just its enemies or strategic competitors that the US spies on. It spies on its friends, too. In 2021, it came out that Denmark had allowed American agencies to covertly listen in to leaders from France, Germany and other allies between 2012 and 2014, while six years before news broke that Germany had been spying on the French presidential palace and foreign ministry and the European Commission on behalf of the US National Security Agency.

On each occasion many prominent people pretended to be shocked, but France’s former counterintelligence chief, Bernard Squarcini, was having none of it. “I am amazed by such disconcerting naivete,” he said in 2013. “You’d almost think our politicians don’t bother to read the reports they get from the intelligence services.”

“The French intelligence services know full well that all countries, whether or not they are allies in the fight against terrorism, spy on each other all the time,” he said. “The Americans spy on French commercial and industrial interests, and we do the same to them because it’s in the national interest to protect our companies.”

It is not just at the state level. Corporate firms use spying techniques all the time. I was once asked to do some spying on a trip to Indonesia. “Being a journalist is excellent cover,” I remember a former MI6 man at the firm in question saying to me – which made me bristle, as the suspicion that journalists are really spies has led to the deaths of too many. (A mixture of ethical concerns and the fact that my assignment was about pluralism and moderation in the world’s most populous Muslim country – about as far as you could get from industrial secrets – meant I didn't actually do any spying.)

Our devices are spying on us all the time, too. This was brought home to me when I had a chat with my sons over dinner one day about a theory familiar to the Star Wars cognoscenti, over whether the Gungan character Jar Jar Binks from the prequels was actually a Sith Lord. My phone had been nearby. And when I woke up the next morning, my tablet had a notification urging me to read an article on the exact same subject.

In fact it's extremely hard for anyone to get off the radar completely, as my old friend David Bond showed in a 2010 documentary he starred and directed in, Erasing David. He tried to escape all digital and physical surveillance and “disappear” somewhere in the UK for 30 days. The private investigators he hired, who at first only had his name and photograph, found him in three weeks.

All of which goes to show that if the Chinese balloon was a spying machine, its controllers were being surprisingly open for once about something that is going on all around us, all the time. And its shooting down and passage over the US have, in any case, actually been of benefit to its new hosts. The US Department of Defence “had several days to observe the balloon’s operations and capabilities including from above using the U2”, tweeted the American Enterprise Institute’s Blake Herzinger. “We won’t know the extent of the intelligence gain from watching the balloon over the course of the week, but it is certain to be useful in the process of exploiting the remains of the balloon and its payload as they’re recovered.”

So less of the performative indignation, please, and Mr Blinken should promptly reschedule his flight to Beijing. The brief life of this balloon should do nothing to affect US-China relations, and politicians who like to feign ignorance of the less savoury aspects of statecraft would be irresponsible to make a rift out of a load of hot air.

Published: February 07, 2023, 2:09 PM