Straying off Course

A Spy Balloon Q&A with John Delury

On the evening of Friday February 3, about one day after news broke that a large balloon from China was surveilling the skies over Montana, ChinaFile’s Susan Jakes spoke with historian John Delury, whose recently published book, Agents of Subversion: The Fate of John T. Downey and the CIA’s Covert War in China, centers around a U.S. spy plane downed in China during the Korean War. Delury spoke from his home in Seoul and Jakes was in Washington, D.C.

The following transcript of their conversation was being edited as news broke that the U.S. had shot down the balloon over the Atlantic Ocean.

Susan Jakes: John, over the last several years you’ve become something of an expert on airborne espionage in the context of U.S.-China Relations. This balloon is kind of a Rorschach. When you first saw the news, what came to mind?

John Delury: After laughing for a little while, maybe because the word “balloon” makes us all laugh, I was struck by a series of ironies. I get this feeling a lot. And I use it when I teach U.S.-China history—about these reversals in the relationship. For me this is a classic ironic reversal moment. My book is all about one big mission of the CIA flying a plane into the People’s Republic of China to pick up an agent and instead being shot down and leaving behind two agents for 20-plus years. [In my research for the book] I was scouring for material on what was the full scope of what the U.S. did not only to spy on China but also to infiltrate it, to overthrow the regime during the Korean War and afterwards in the 1950s and ’60s. And there’s plenty of it.

When you look at Tibet, for example, there’s a very good book called Eyes in the Sky about all of the aerial surveillance that kicked in in the 1950s when the technology got good enough: overflights with the new state-of-the-art cameras taking pictures and kind of remapping Tibet. And of course, that was a period when the CIA was training Tibetan guerilla commandos—ironically, in Colorado, not all that far from Montana—at Camp Hale. There’s this whole history that most Americans don’t know. I didn’t know about it until I did the research.

So there’s this ironic reversal moment with China where ok, now here’s China with at least the capability—we’re still trying to fathom the intention of this—to send this high-tech stuff over our airspace and what do we do about it.

And this has been a thorny issue in post-Cold War U.S.-China relations for a couple of decades. Some of the major crises in the relationship have been over surveillance, but it has been U.S. surveillance. The Hainan EP-3 spy plane incident in 2001 was a major crisis. In that case, there was loss of life. That’s a big difference. There was a Chinese fighter pilot who died, so it was much more charged. The issue of the apology was very important, with Jiang Zemin demanding it of George W. Bush. And there was [intense scrutiny] of the language of the apology, in English vs. Chinese. And then they had the plane, so they kept the plane for a while. I mean if they can bring this balloon down safely, then you would have a nice parallel of a hostage negotiation [over spy equipment]. Also, there was the issue of payment. The United States sent a reimbursement for the cost of the whole thing and then, China [who had demanded far more] didn’t cash the check.

So I think we’re potentially facing some of that. If this is a prolonged process, we don’t know what the end game could be. So far, the Chinese Foreign Ministry is not saying they’re sorry and they’re not acknowledging it’s a spy balloon even though our side says they’re 100 percent certain it is.

Which is also an ironic echo of past crises involving espionage, like the one in your book.

For sure, because then the United States was in a position of lying quite a bit publicly, to its own public, about all the stuff it was doing.

So this looks likely to become a pretty dispiriting moment for people who hoped Secretary Blinken’s visit to Beijing might serve to somewhat deescalate tensions between the two countries. How are you thinking about what the fallout might mean for the larger relationship?

I was disappointed that Secretary Blinken decided to cancel the visit, because this is just the kind of stuff that we need to talk about. And talk about it face to face. And also contextualize it, because there’s a lot else at stake in the relationship. To me, it doesn’t rise to the point of everything else has to stop and we have to resolve the balloon incident for the diplomats to meet. I guess they don’t feel they have the space. There’s a public aspect to this, too, and a media aspect. Blinken made the point, and it’s totally fair, that if a U.S. spy balloon showed up in China days before a high-level visit, or anytime, basically the Global Times would be having a conniption fit.

And the meeting would be canceled.

It would. But I do think we should have gone through it with it. I think there’s a certain confidence to being able to say, “This is ridiculous. What you’ve done is laughable and we have to figure out if we’re going to blow this up safely or bring it down . . . so I guess we can add that to our agenda.” I guess it’s really delaying the trip, and I don’t think it’s going to kill the underlying process, which is a resumption of dialogue.

But there’s also the question of intent. We have to do our best to figure out what we think was behind this. If it’s true, as the Pentagon is saying, that the balloon is not very sophisticated in terms of its surveillance and it’s not adding anything to what they have, then that raises the question of why China is doing this. Presumably, they thought they could send the balloon over and it wouldn’t be detected or it would be ignored, but again, why even do that if you’ve already got the information from your satellite. Then you go down the list of inferences, and it’s basically redundant, in terms of the information-gathering. Or maybe it’s a kind of power move, whether the government sees it or the public and the government see it. Maybe they want us to know that they’re watching.

Another possibility is that this has been going on for a while and we’ve known about it and just not viewed it as a major threat, but what was different this time was that members of the public saw it.

The Pentagon said that this balloon was lingering longer [in U.S. airspace] which would be the one obvious advantage in terms of the snooping. Because if thanks to the wind it just sits there floating right over a spot then it can stare at that spot, whereas the satellite is moving around.

But to go more meta for a minute, these kinds of issues are very neo-Cold War. When we talk about the Cold War, there was a lot of stuff that was like this, kind of in the shadows, and this kind of sparring where both governments are denying it.

One of the big problems with that for the United States is that it poses different problems for a democracy than for a non-democracy. China’s media continues to try to gaslight the public that protests never occurred in November. There’s no acknowledgement that those things happened. And as we know, Chinese people are super critical of their media and they take it all with a grain of salt because they know they’re not getting the full story. Americans expect the truth. So something like this poses problems of transparency and how much does the public know—what’s the role of media in this kind of event?

One thing I would praise is that that Pentagon readout seemed pretty straightforward and forthcoming. That was Department of Defense, but we’ve seen that from the CIA and the intelligence community around Ukraine, being more forthcoming than people are used to and putting stuff out there. As a historian of intelligence, I think this is incredibly healthy for a democracy. You need to err on the side of telling people too much, because that’s the strength of a democracy in the long run.

The problem with this incident is the danger of its spilling into media frenzy and hype. . .

Oh it’s spilled in. I know you’re in Seoul and you just woke up. I mean, now the people who think it’s cool to wear pins in the shape of AR-15s are pointing actual guns at the sky. And it’s a new outlet for the drumbeat of “Biden is weak.”

When is American culture going to recover from LBJ’s tragedy in Vietnam? That’s why I’ll be one of the one’s saying we either should have stuck with the trip or we should reschedule it as soon as possible, because once you start playing the game of “we don’t want to look weak” you kind of never get out of that trap. And the Democrats, in particular, have a really bad history of making really bad decisions in order to avoid looking weak.

But do you really think it’s just about the optics? I mean, it seems like not a great thing to have going on while trying to have a wide-ranging diplomatic engagement, if you have your espionage aircraft breezing around our sovereign territory. That’s pretty loud background noise.

Again, I think that’s when you talk. I guess it depends on what your expectations were for the meeting beforehand. I had very low expectations. I have low expectations of the relationship. So it’s not like, there was a breakthrough but now it would be awkward to announce the breakthrough because there’s a spy balloon in the country. This meeting was going to be about [“putting a floor under” the U.S.-China relationship].

It seems like the best most people hoped for was no breakthrough, but no breakdown.

To me, this doesn’t meet the threshold for stopping talking. Of course, I’m not there, and in a healthy administration there would be two sides to that argument. I’m not saying it’s absurd that they canceled it. I just wish it would have gone through. And Blinken is still going to have to go at some point.

Right, and so then what’s the threshold that has to be crossed to make that possible? I guess the other possibility is that at some point they do shoot it down. Whether they do that or not, what will you be looking for, apart from trying to better understand Beijing’s intent in sending the balloon in the first place?

That’s still the big one. But a lot unfolds with that. The problem is, I doubt [China is] going to budge from that first statement, that it’s a meteorological device and we regret it floated into your territory. We’re going to have to figure out why they did this at this time or why they let this happen at this time. That’s going to be a known unknown for a while. But that’s important to the longer response. This could turn into their giving their list of all of the surveillance things we do.

I assume one of the less visible elements of ballast in the relationship is that the two countries are aware of one another’s espionage activities to some extent. You think that’s the case?

In the history of intelligence, it’s often the case that in even intensely adversarial relationships like the U.S. and the Soviet Union, there are plenty of instances of a kind of gentleman’s agreement to the effect of: we know you’re doing this and we know you’re doing that. There’s even an argument that a certain amount of espionage is stabilizing and allows both sides to pass certain messages and also to not worry about certain things because they’re confident they know what is going on enough to know certain things are not going on. So there is this whole logic of intelligence, of covert relations, which gives room for the other side to do x, y, and z. And it sounds possible that the U.S. has treated these balloons as kind of “meh” insofar as it’s apparently happened several times before in previous administrations and we haven’t been told about it. That’s what we were just told [in the Pentagon readout]. That seems pretty significant. It was almost a throwaway in the transcript. But this is not the first time. It’s happened before and it wasn’t so significant that the public had to be informed, and now it’s become a big public issue. But again, there’s no information yet that this has any particular intelligence value to the Chinese. Which raises the question again of why are they doing it, but also of how forceful does our response needs to be. And, of course, we do need to retain some skepticism of our own government in times like these. That’s a lesson of the past. They’re not automatically telling us everything.