The Chinese balloon saga threatens to be a watershed moment in the world’s dangerous new superpower rivalry: For the first time, Americans experienced a tangible symbol of the national security challenge from Beijing.
The craft, described by US intelligence as a surveillance balloon, presented a comparatively low-tech, modest security threat compared to the multi-layered espionage, economic, cyber, military and geopolitical rivalry escalating every day.
But as it wafted through US skies before being shot down Saturday off of the Carolinas, the balloon created a sudden moment when the idea of a threat by China to the US homeland was neither distant, theoretical, unseen, or years in the future. And it underscored how in today’s polarized America, Washington’s first reaction in the face of a threat is to point fingers rather than unify.
It was not the first time that Chinese balloons have crossed into US airspace during this administration or the last one – and military officials told CNN this one was not seen as a particularly grave intelligence or national security threat. But its mocking days-long sashay from Montana to the eastern seaboard sparked a media frenzy and a Washington uproar.
In what was simultaneously a moment of geopolitical high stakes and high farce, the White House struggled to explain why it hadn’t immediately burst the balloon as officials in South Carolina warned people not to take pot shots at the high-flying Chinese intruder with their rifles.
This all left President Joe Biden in a deeply vulnerable position as his Republican critics pounced. The balloon could not simply be ignored – especially as Secretary of State Antony Blinken was about to head on a trip to Beijing that was quickly canceled as the political storm erupted.
“We should not have let the People’s Republic of China make a mockery of our airspace,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement Sunday.
While Beijing expressed unusual regret for the incursion of what it claimed was a weather monitoring airship, its critics see the incident as the latest example of a brazen willingness to flex its power outside its region, to trample established rules between nations and as more evidence of an aggressive attempt to expand its influence and intelligence operations around the globe, which have targeted businesses, universities and Chinese Americans as well as traditional targets.
“The US has made clear that this is an unacceptable intrusion into American sovereignty,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. While China has scores of spy satellites trained on the US – just as Washington does on its rival – the visible audacity of the balloon flight has triggered fury in Washington. This, in turn, threatens to unleash political, military and diplomatic forces in both nations that, while manageable in the short-term, show how hard it will be to stop this growing rivalry from hitting a boiling point and causing war in one of the defining threats of the 21st century.
Until the balloon crossed into US airspace, there was a small window between Chinese President Xi Jinping’s securing of a norm-busting third term last year and the next US presidential election when cooler politics in Washington and Beijing could have facilitated an easing of diplomatic tensions. That opportunity may now have been squandered.
Immediate questions for Biden
The aftermath of the crisis poses tough questions for Biden and is an unwelcome distraction from a State of the Union address on Tuesday that is a reelection campaign launch in all but name.
Republicans quickly branded Biden as feckless, easily intimidated by China and slow to defend US territory. While such criticism is easy for critics with a megaphone but no responsibility, the political tumult will make a treacherous environment for future US policymaking designed to head off a clash with China.