So Much Hot Air: The (Fake) China Threat Strikes Again!
As everyone is by now well aware, a data-gathering balloon of Chinese origin passed over the continental United States last week.
According to the Pentagon, it is not the first. They say China has launched some two dozen over the past five years, several of which passed over either Florida, Texas, or Guam during that time. Far from being cause for alarm, however, the Pentagon initially reported that the balloons’ “signals collection ability isn’t radically different from other systems available to the Chinese,” and did not pose “a significantly enhanced threat.”
In other words, though this particular balloon passed over several sensitive military installations in the central United States, the Chinese government likely did not learn anything of interest—if that was even their intention.
Beijing claimed it was an off-course weather balloon with “limited” maneuverability. With the incident described as an “accident” and a case of “force majeure,” the stage seemed set for a simple apology.
That was last Tuesday.
By Wednesday, with the fake China threat live on every channel, it was clear that deescalating the situation, as when a US spy plane collided with an intercepting Chinese jet over Chinese airspace in 2001, resulting in the death of the Chinese pilot, wasn’t on the table.
The media talked of little else the rest of the week, while Republicans, ignoring that the Pentagon had declined to shoot the balloon down over Idaho for fear of damage caused by falling debris, took to the lowest fear-mongering imaginable. Marco Rubio, Kevin McCarthy, J.D. Vance, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis—nobody could get out quickly or emphatically enough how much of a threat China was and how weak Joe Biden was for not acting completely belligerent.
About what might have been a surveillance balloon, and which in any case had no extraordinary capabilities and posed no threat.
But, of course, Biden caved—turning what could have been a minor incident into an escalating diplomatic spat at a moment when Sino-American relations have scarcely been worse.
Because Washington and Beijing do so much overhead surveillance of one another, this incident, intentional or not, could have gone on to form a platform for dialogue ahead of Antony Blinken’s (now cancelled) visit. Yet rather than taking the opportunity to discuss the important norms of overhead surveillance in the wake of the Open Skies Treaty, which Trump’s administration foolishly ripped up, the Biden administration caved to domestic political pressure, cancelling what would have been the first ever face-to-face meeting between Xi Jinping and a cabinet-level member of the Biden administration.
Biden’s final decision to shoot down the admittedly harmless balloon (leaving China to observe goings-on in the United States from their many equally effective low-orbiting surveillance satellites), squandered any potential opportunity for diplomatic settlement.
Indeed, after a muted week, Beijing responded to the final downing of the balloon by a missile off the Carolina coast by threatening to act accordingly under similar circumstances.
Obviously, there are a lot of questions, but even just considering what we know, it seems clear the reason-distorting impact of the fake China threat caused Washington to ignore better options in favor of one that would satiate a riled-up domestic audience.
Making matters worse, the Biden administration has attempted to spin the capture of what remained of the balloon as a major intelligence coup, while the US House followed up with a rare unanimous resolution condemning the “brazen violation” of US sovereignty. Never mind that Beijing maintains the balloon was a weather balloon thrown off course and that Xi has gestured at firing the head of China’s weather service. The Pentagon, too, changed its tune. As reported in the Washington Post, the balloon has transformed into “part of [a] vast aerial surveillance program” overnight.
These days, with every general or admiral with any stars taking a turn on Capitol Hill to issue breathless warnings about impending war with China over Taiwan, one is only surprised the Pentagon acted so reservedly earlier in the week. A libertarian-realist reading of the situation is that the Pentagon was quite content to see the admittedly harmless airship float in clear view over the country for a week in order to stoke the predictable mindless media frenzy.
Setting aside the question of why trillions of dollars in defense spending to protect against (much faster moving) incoming flying objects was inadequate to safely bring down a slow-moving hot air balloon over some of the least densely populated stretches of the industrialized world, would Beijing have welcomed the opportunity to close the matter with a formal apology had the Biden administration publicly ignored the hawks?
While the Wall Street Journal did (briefly) mention that the incident may have been a response to recent so-called freedom of navigation acts by the US Navy and its allies through disputed waters claimed by China, and indeed Xi has been under pressure from China’s own hawks over what they view as his timidity in response to high-level US delegations’ repeated visits to Taiwan, Xi has been recently preoccupied with trying to reassure and woo Western investors and businesses. With supply chain issues and extended arbitrary lockdowns having already prompted many multinational corporations to shift away from China, rapidly deteriorating relations between Washington and Beijing are prompting more moves.
Considering Xi’s need to address these concerns, to say nothing of managing his myriad domestic difficulties, it is hard to imagine, particularly given what has been stated publicly, that he purposefully ruined his own sit-down with Blinken. Again, it is possible that he did, or that rogue hawks within the Chinese establishment manufactured the incident in order to sabotage the meeting to prevent any potential détente. The observable facts just seem to mitigate the possibility.
We’ll never know. Beyond any potential retaliation on the part of Beijing for Washington’s response, what is most alarming about the situation is the ease with which such a level of public hysteria seized all levels of the corporate media and political elite.
Even worse to consider, is that the climate Washington wants?
Is it supposed to foster a thought climate more permissive of a military response to any potential move by Beijing against Taiwan?
The time to speak out against any potential changes to the status quo policy vis-à-vis Taiwan is now. Already the one-China policy has been seriously eroded without any public debate, and much more serious changes were nearly smuggled into one of the annual “must-pass” appropriations.
We have come to a dangerous place. It was by choice. We could and should choose otherwise.