Bursting China’s Balloon

President Biden ultimately made the right call, shooting down the Chinese spy balloon over the Atlantic Ocean, but questions about the past and the future remain.  Why wasn’t he informed for three days?  Why was the prior administration never informed?  What do we do about it now?

Last week witnessed what might have been the highest stakes yet slowest moving international crisis in recent memory.  On Wednesday, the US government revealed that a Chinese spy balloon was located some 60,000 feet over a military base in Montana, one that housed a good portion of our nuclear arsenal.  Questions quickly arose as to how the balloon got there and what we should do about it, but the Biden Administration appeared somewhat flat footed at first, surprised at this development and unsure how to respond to a threat over the US mainland.  Reports suggested that the President himself wanted to shoot down the balloon immediately, until the Department of Defense and NASA concluded the risk of falling debris damaging property or even killing an innocent bystander was too great.  Rather than act, they attempted to muddy the waters further, claiming the appearance of such balloons over American airspace was a regular occurrence in previous administrations, saying “Instances of this activity have been observed over the past several years, including prior to this administration.”  They also argued that the balloon itself wasn’t much of a threat, as if its presence was not a particularly big deal by any means and it was only the media that was making it so.  “Why not shoot it down? We have to do the risk-reward here,” a senior defense official said on Thursday. “So the first question is, does it pose a threat, a physical kinetic threat, to individuals in the United States in the US homeland? Our assessment is it does not. Does it pose a threat to civilian aviation? Our assessment is it does not. Does it pose a significantly enhanced threat on the intelligence side? Our best assessment right now is that it does not. So given that profile, we assess the risk of downing it, even if the probability is low in a sparsely populated area of the debris falling and hurting someone or damaging property, that it wasn’t worth it.” 

Republicans, sensing political weakness, dismissed these concerns and demanded immediate action along with classified briefings.  As Senator Tom Cotton explained, it “what began as a spy balloon has become a trial balloon testing President Biden’s strength and resolve, and unfortunately, the president failed that test.”  Events were complicated further by conflicting information from the Chinese, and a pending diplomatic trip headed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.  The Chinese, perhaps needless to say, claimed there was nothing to see here, it was just a civilian weather balloon, one with three busloads worth of high tech surveillance equipment, that drifted some 10,000 miles of course and happened to plant itself over a nuclear missile silo.  Secretary Blinken wisely canceled his trip on Friday while the Administration urged the country to be patient, claiming the balloon would drift out of our airspace within a few days.  By Saturday afternoon, however, things had changed and an F22 Raptor downed the balloon off the coast of South Carolina with a single missile.  The sudden change of plan gave the news networks whiplash, placing CNN in the odd position of covering “Why the US hasn’t shot down the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon” on Friday, only to report “Inside Biden’s decision to ‘take care’ of the Chinese spy balloon that triggered a diplomatic crisis” on Saturday. 

Personally, I believe the President made the right call after an initially confusing response.  The threat did not seem to be great enough to warrant possibly losing American lives with a strike over the US mainland, and it appears the strike occurred as soon as reasonably possible.  I question the political spin in the interim, and wonder why they simply didn’t state that the balloon would be downed at the earliest opportunity.  It is also more than fair to wonder how the balloon managed to get to Montana before we considered taking any action at all, given it appeared to have drifted over Alaska and Canada first.  The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) initially spotted the spy balloon on January 28th.  “We’ve seen them and monitored them, briefed Congress on the capabilities they can bring to the table,” a US official told CNN. “But we’ve never seen something as brazen as this.”  Incredibly, it appears the President was not informed until Tuesday, January 31, when the balloon had already reached Montana and it was too late to take down over an unpopulated area.  The NORAD commander claimed this delay was his decision. “It was my assessment that this balloon did not present a physical military threat to North America — this is under my NORAD hat — and therefore, I could not take immediate action because it was not demonstrating hostile act or hostile intent,” General Glen D. VanHerck told reporters.  This is puzzling to say the least. Why would he make that call without consulting his superiors? More details might come out in the coming days, but it appears as of now that President Biden made the best decision under the circumstances.

In the meantime, everyone appears to agree on one thing:  This was an incredibly provocative action on the part of the Chinese, both illegal under international law (for what that’s worth) and intentionally confrontational.  As Republican Senator Marco Rubio put it, the hidden statement in the action was “we can do whatever we want and America can’t stop us.”  There were obvious echoes to the Cold War, and the feeling that tensions with the Chinese Communist Party had suddenly been taken to a new level.  CNN’s Stephen Collinson summed it up with the headline, “Why the Chinese balloon crisis could be a defining moment in the new Cold War.”  “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.”  He continued, “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.”  Ultimately, “The episode is a reminder that while the ruling Chinese Communist Party is ruthless and repressive, high-stakes power politics is as treacherous in Beijing as Washington. Like in the US, the fraught politics of US-China relations can lead to decisions that cause escalation.”  He concluded, “This is why many observers in both countries see the US and China now on inevitably clashing courses – a doom-laden possibility that seems only more likely after the seemingly innocuous flight of one balloon across the US.”

Rarely do I agree with Mr. Collinson, but he gets much of it right this time.  My wife asked me over the weekend how big a deal this is.  I responded by saying, the balloon itself isn’t a  big deal.  What it signifies, however, most certainly is.  There are two questions facing us now, at least in my opinion, one backward facing, the other looking towards the future.  Both are equally troubling in their own way.  President Biden was not alerted to the potential threat for three days, an eternity in international politics.  Wars have begun faster than that.  Why the delay when the best chance to respond forcefully would have been before the balloon entered the continental US?  Even worse, subsequent reporting suggests that the Trump Administration was never informed at all about the three incidents that occurred on their watch.  When confronted with the news, former President Trump and top officials claimed it never happened – or they never heard of it.  “This never happened. It would have never happened,” President Trump told Fox News Digital on Sunday.  “It never happened with us under the Trump administration and if it did, we would have shot it down immediately,” he added “It’s disinformation.”  Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, “I don’t ever recall somebody coming into my office or reading anything that the Chinese had a surveillance balloon above the United States.”  Former National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has since become a Trump critic, agreed.  “I don’t know of any balloon flights by any power over the United States during my tenure, and I’d never heard of any of that occurring before I joined in 2018,” he said. “I haven’t heard of anything that occurred after I left either.”

Others agreed as well, and then we learned the reason why:  Somehow, the breach of United States airspace on three separate occasions was not “discovered” until the Biden Administration took office.  As CNN reported, “The transiting of three suspected Chinese spy balloons over the continental US during the Trump administration was only discovered after President Joe Biden took office, a senior administration official told CNN on Sunday.  The official did not say how or when those incidents were discovered.”  Subsequent reporting gets even more mysterious.  General VanHerck claimed that the previous balloons were not detected by NORAD itself and were only known after the fact.  “I will tell you that we did not detect those threats. And that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out,” he said.  “The intel community, after the fact, I believe has been briefed already, assess those threats to additional means of collection from additional means and made us aware of those balloons that were previously approaching North America or transited North America. I hope that answers your question.”  This explanation is unacceptable, especially when the details remain incredibly vague, some reports hint that the balloons in question were near Texas and Florida without saying directly that they were in US airspace, but this has not prevented Democrats from claiming Trump somehow failed while Biden succeeded, suggesting Biden is some kind of super strong, decisive leader.  Regardless, if this information was withheld while Trump was in office, the American people need to know why and by whom.  Magically discovering it more than two years later is not sufficient.  As Mr. Bolton put it, “Did the Biden administration invent a time machine? What is the basis of this new detection?” Supposedly, there will be a briefing for Congress and former administration officials in the near future.  This should be one of the primary topics, especially in an era when many conservatives are already skeptical of the establishment and the intelligence community.

The forward looking question is simple, but very complicated to answer:  What are we going to do about it when the Chinese themselves take no responsibility and are promising some form of retaliation for the temerity to shoot down a spy balloon that illegally entered US airspace?  There’s an inertia in geopolitical diplomacy, at least in Western democracies, that naturally avoids escalation for obvious reasons, but sometimes a brazen act can provide clarity of the challenge and a renewed sense of purpose.  We did not ask for this escalation, but we will have to deal with it all the same, nor is this the only area where China appears to be increasingly aggressive.  Few doubt they have their sights set on Taiwan, though the when and how remain vague even as they build islands and flex their military might in the South China Sea.  They are also a chief supporter of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, what I have described as our Russia problem really being a China problem.  Economically, they remain just as belligerent, stealing trade secrets from US companies and refusing to be bound by anything remotely resembling the principles of free trade.  Of course, no one can forget their role in hiding the extent of the initial pandemic, and lying about it afterwards, likely resulting in hundreds of thousands of additional deaths.  Blaming President Biden for the current state of the relationship might be easy, but the problem has been known for decades.  To his credit, President Trump took a more aggressive stance during this time in office, imposing tariffs, labeling them a currency manipulator, and ultimately securing a new trade deal, but most of that was derailed as a result of the pandemic.  President Biden has taken a more diplomatic, dialogue driven approach, and invested some $50 billion in US microchip production, but so far has not provided any coherent strategy and now finds his administration beset by this escalation.  The situation is made more complicated by an almost insatiable desire in the establishment business community to invest in China and to cater to their abuses wherever possible.  It is not likely this incident will change that dynamic, but a sitting US President is not powerless either.

What’s missing is a desire and a plan to upend the economic dynamic that drives our dependency and complacency in dealing with a totalitarian regime that clearly is no friend.  Unfortunately, out of control inflation and interest rates limits our ability to wield traditional economic tactics like tariffs, but the focus of our efforts should be squarely on reimagining the global supply chain without China as a primary partner, beginning with manufacturing.  The much ballyhooed infrastructure bill and the CHIPs act have always seemed like missed opportunities, at least to this observer.  We have to accept that every dollar we send to China to purchase their goods is one that will be spent strengthening their position and weakening ours.  The only solution is to reduce the flow by bringing manufacturing home or pursuing other countries where we can form a more fruitful alliance.  India and South America certainly come to mind, but this will not be easy in any event.  We are currently purchasing a lot more from them than they are from us, a figure that is increasing rapidly, from $132.79 billion in 2018 to $458.93 billion in 2021, meaning we are moving in the wrong direction. At the same time, this differential is an opportunity, and we need not reduce it all at once.  China will feel the economic pain of each and every dollar we cut, and if we invest those dollars in the United States itself, we will receive a double benefit.  There will hopefully reach a point where China realizes a future without the United States as their largest trading partner is one where they are diminished, economically and politically.  Achieving that should be our primary international focus, now and for the foreseeable future.  It is the only way to fully burst their ascending balloon.


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