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China’s Spy Balloon Is Down. Cold War 2.0 Risks Are Rising.

“Balloongate” offers a useful hook to evaluate the relationship between the U.S. and China during a period of extraordinarily high tensions

Chinese spy balloon flying above Charlotte Photo by Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

If we’re being honest, the whole thing is kind of funny. A Chinese spy balloon floated across the U.S. Nobody died, unless we count the balloon itself. In a saner age, this story would be over. But balloongate offers a useful hook to evaluate the relationship between the U.S. and China during a period of extraordinarily high tensions. These are the most powerful countries in the world, the two largest economies in the history of the world, and they are currently undergoing a kind of conscious uncoupling that is having a huge effect on our economies, politics, and planet. Juliette Kayyem is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and former government official. James Palmer is the deputy editor at Foreign Policy.

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In the following excerpt, Derek asks Juliette Kayyem and James Palmer what sets this spying episode apart from the others.

Derek Thompson: Juliette, let’s start with you. The U.S. and China spy on each other all the time. We have been spying on each other for decades. We look at them with satellites. They look at us with satellites. What makes this story different?

Juliette Kayyem: The story is different for two reasons. One is that the use of a balloon has a specific surveillance purpose, because balloons, when they are under operational control of the spying country, can hover. And that hovering allows for greater detail, understanding of, say, atmospheric releases—so if you’re over a nuclear facility, things that you and I would think, why would anyone want to know? But a foreign country may want to know.

The second reason besides the hovering is they, of course, got caught. So we’ve now learned that this has happened before three times, at least in the Trump administration. But the getting caught only occurred when the balloon was in what we would call NORAD space. That’s the space that governs the U.S. and the Northern Command and is pre-space altitude. It would be both commercial flights—so if a commercial flight had a hostage-taking situation—and the space between that and what is called international space, where satellites are allowed to do essentially whatever they want. So the Chinese satellites are going round and round. That’s essentially the difference and the answer to why would they have done this or what benefit. Whether they intended it, I’d leave to China-U.S. experts, but this is the why.

Thompson: James, I was reading some of your great work, and you wrote that this is not the first time that geopolitical adversaries in an alleged Cold War have spied on each other wherein one party gets caught and lies about trying to collect weather information. Isn’t that right?

James Palmer: Exactly. The most famous incident, of course, is the 1960 U-2 shoot-down, when the U.S. was running over flights in planes that it believed were way beyond Soviet capabilities to tackle. One of these got shot down and the U.S. promptly came up with an incredibly elaborate lie. It claimed that it was a weather maintenance plane being run by NASA. They painted another U-2 in different colors. They came up with all this background. The problem was that all this time, the Soviets had also captured the pilot, but they didn’t give out that they had captured the pilot. And so they were able to suddenly string this and reveal that everything the U.S. had said was a lie, and it was a deeply embarrassing incident and also one that blew up of a promising set of talks that were about to happen in the context of relative détente between the U.S. and Soviet Union at the time.

But even before that, the U.S. tried to make great use of balloons during the Cold War, the early Cold War, before satellites were really developed. Project Moby Dick in the 1950s involved hundreds of balloons that were floated over the Soviet Union. Obviously, they couldn’t be controlled at the time, but they had pre-prepared weather balloon excuses. And in fact, they contained a little thing saying, “This is part of a weather monitoring program, if it is brought down, please return to XXX.” So both the spying and the excuses have been part of these great-power relations for a long time.

Thompson: Can you quickly gloss over, James, why a balloon? I have to imagine, if we’re all being honest, a part of what makes this story catchy is the fact that “Chinese spy balloon” is kind of a funny phrase. It’s a little bit ridiculous. Maybe we are in Cold War 2.0. Maybe this is going to kick off a geopolitical disaster. But if we’re honest with ourselves, “Chinese spy balloon” is kind of funny. Why have not only the Chinese, but also the U.S., you’re saying, going back to the 1950s, maybe even earlier, why are we even playing around with balloon technology as a surveillance tool?

Palmer: In the 1950s, we didn’t have satellites. And so anything we could get over the Soviet Union was useful. And in fact, we got quite a bit of information. I believe at least one major Soviet nuclear site was detected via the balloons. Now the question is why do it in an era of the eye in the sky, when you can pick out a fly on the back of a farmer in Siberia from ... hundreds of miles up? And basically, it seems to be a question of costs. So in theory, if you could get a decent balloon network, and I love saying those words, you could get a decent balloon network going, you can hear my wife laughing in the background.

This excerpt was edited for clarity. Listen to the rest of the episode here and follow the Plain English feed on Spotify.

Host: Derek Thompson
Guests: Juliette Kayyem & James Palmer
Producer: Devon Manze

Subscribe: Spotify