The Chinese spy balloon observed over Montana is not a new departure. It is a provocative measure because countries claim more rights over the lower atmosphere above their territory than they do over the space beyond that. But the balloon’s presence is not exactly a step on the road to World War III. In fact, this type of surveillance is much more likely to prevent, rather than provoke, conflict.
The Chinese operate the second-most-sophisticated satellite program on Earth, next only to that of the United States. As of last September, some 562 Chinese satellites were orbiting the Earth. Not all of these are surveillance systems, but many are. They send home information on U.S. military capabilities and on the American economy—the status of grain crops, for example. They are probably intercepting a lot of U.S. data traffic too; and the latest models are thought to have radar-based systems that can collect images through cloud cover and at night.
For nearly three-quarters of a century, U.S. policy has been to welcome mutual aerial surveillance as a way to keep the peace. Back in 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower made the first proposal for an “Open Skies” international accord on such inspection systems. At the time, the Soviets rejected the offer, but the concept was revived after the Cold War and blossomed into a multination agreement signed in 1992. The Treaty on Open Skies licensed signatories to conduct a certain number of overflights each year in order to build confidence in one another’s peaceful intentions. Donald Trump’s administration proceeded to cancel U.S. participation in the agreement after his defeat in the election of November 2020.
The Trump administration generally took a hostile attitude toward the sharing of information among potential adversaries. From January 2017 to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, it reduced the number of CDC personnel inside China from 47 to 14. It also shut the Beijing offices of the National Science Foundation and the Agency for International Development.
China never signed up to the Open Skies Treaty. An authoritarian state that is becoming more so by the year, China thinks it enhances its security by concealing as much information as possible from the outside world. The U.S. nevertheless runs information-gathering missions off the coast of China—and rightly took offense when China forced down a U.S. Navy surveillance plane and detained its crew in April 2001.
Every government must protect some secrets. But Eisenhower’s wisdom is worth recalling: Mutual surveillance is mutually reassuring.
After the Soviet rejection of Open Skies, the United States proceeded with its own surveillance program. U-2 planes flew 13 miles above the ground, taking photographs of such high definition that they could reveal airstrip markings six inches wide. In May 1960, the Soviets shot down a U-2 plane and captured the pilot, Francis Gary Powers. A diplomatic uproar followed.
But along with the uproar came something else. Through the late 1950s, the bombastic Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had often threatened nuclear-missile strikes against the West. His bluster had frightened many, but never Eisenhower. The U-2 program confirmed to Eisenhower that Khrushchev was wildly exaggerating Soviet capabilities. In fact, the Soviet missile program lagged far behind that of the United States. Eisenhower’s famous valedictory “military-industrial complex” speech in January 1961 rested in part on the cool, calm assessment of the Soviet threat that he had gained from surveillance programs like the one based on U-2 flights:
Down the long lane of the history yet to be written America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.
Rarely do good surprises occur between adversarial nations. Communicating more, rather than less, is far safer. Let the Chinese balloon alone—the message it can send home is that, for the sake of peace, a return to open skies is in everyone’s interest.