After U.S. Shoots Down ‘Chinese Spy Balloon,’ Diplomacy is the Path to Avert Future Conflict

Interview with David Vine, professor of political anthropology at American University, conducted by Scott Harris

Over a period of two weeks, the U.S. military shot down what was called a “Chinese spy balloon” off the South Carolina coast, followed by U.S. fighters jets scrambling to shoot down three other unidentified flying objects over the skies of Alaska, the Canadian Yukon and Lake Huron. The U.S. government has made little or no information public about the debris recovered from the Chinese balloon, or what’s known about the other three high-altitude devices that were shot down. 

What’s known is that the balloon incident has further inflamed already tense U.S.–China relations. After the appearance of the balloon over the U.S., the Biden administration indefinitely postponed Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s planned Feb. 3 diplomatic trip to Beijing, despite China’s claim that the balloon was a weather research “airship” that had blown off course. 

Another source of increasing U.S.-China tensions is the recent agreement between the U.S. and the Philippines that paved the way for the American military to gain access to four additional military bases there, allowing for the construction of facilities at a total of nine locations across the Philippines. The Pentagon says the Philippines bases will be part of a growing network of U.S. bases in Asia to monitor and respond to future Chinese aggression toward Taiwan. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with David Vine, professor of political anthropology at American University and author. Here, Vine talks about the danger of rising U.S.-China tensions and how following an alternative path of diplomacy could avert future conflicts.  

DAVID VINE: I think we do need a really calm assessment, which is pretty much exactly what we haven’t received over the last 10 days. First, I think it’s important to point out that the balloon itself posed no military threat to the United States, contrary to what many politicians and some parts of the media might have led people to believe.

Similarly, we need to point out that there is no evidence that I’ve seen. I don’t think anyone has seen that the three unidentified objects that have been shot down in recent days are Chinese or have anything to do with China. And the balloon incident has unfortunately only escalated the kind of fearmongering that some politicians and members of the media are making a lot of hay with and that are only contributing to rising military tensions between the United States and China.

Regardless of what the balloon was, I think there is increasing evidence that it probably was a spy balloon. It also was a distraction from the fact that there is massive spying that’s going on on a daily basis by satellite, by numerous forms of technology. And a spy balloon visible in the skies over Montana or any other part of the United States in some ways just makes China look bad.

It’s important to put any single balloon in a larger context, a context in which the United States, China or other major powers are spying on one another every day.

SCOTT HARRIS: One important source of rising tensions between the United States and China is the fact that the U.S. recently secured access to four additional military bases in the Philippines, what we’re told was part of a large network of U.S. bases to monitor and respond to future Chinese aggression toward Taiwan. In other words, this is part of a policy of containment. I wondered if you would just comment on the dangers you see in the expansion of U.S. military bases around the South China Sea and Asia in general.

DAVID VINE: Again, this is precisely the wrong approach when the United States should be building up its diplomatic presence in East Asia, its embassies and diplomats, as well as other forms of engagement: political, economic, cultural, educational.

The United States, by the Pentagon’s own count, already has around 313 military base sites in East Asia as part of a global network of what are now around 750 U.S. military bases in some 80 countries and colonies — more than any nation, country, people or empire in world history. But the 313 bases in East Asia are indeed encircling and containing China, threatening China.

And here’s one place where the balloon incident perhaps is useful. There was a lot of fear in the United States about the appearance of this balloon, even though it didn’t pose any military threat, period, to the United States.

Imagine if China had announced on the same day, the creation of a single Chinese military base somewhere near U.S. borders in Mexico and Canada, in the Caribbean. How would U.S. citizens leaders have reacted? You can imagine — just judging on the reaction to the balloon incident — that there would have been calls for an immediate military response.

Meanwhile, China every day lives surrounded by U.S. military bases in Guam, in Okinawa, Japan, other parts of Japan, South Korea, Australia and indeed in the Philippines, where the Biden administration has announced that it is going to deploy forces to four more bases, in addition to the five existing bases that the United States already operates in the Philippines, bringing the total to nine.

This again is precisely only encouraging the Chinese government to respond militarily. You can imagine the pressures in China, people calling for a Chinese military response, in response to these new U.S. bases that will be established in the Philippines or at least U.S. military presence at the Philippine military bases. This is indeed intended to threaten China and this is the approach that we need to move away from.

We need to move away from military threats and toward a form of engagement with China built on cooperation, cooperation around the real threats that are facing all of us, including global warming, global pandemics and the territorial disputes in East Asia. United States could play a very productive role in helping to resolve some of the territorial disputes between countries like the Philippines and China, while bringing actual peace and stability to the region.

David Vine is also author of “The United States of War.” David Vine’s website can be found at

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with David Vine (29:41) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.

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