Washington forges rare political unity in condemning China over balloon drama

Stephen Collinson

China’s audacious spy balloon flight across North America has spectacularly backfired by enshrining rare bipartisan unity in Washington. The coming together of Republicans and Democrats is certain to stiffen future US strategic, economic and military resolve in the Pacific region and further damage buckled relations with Beijing.
The fierce congressional reaction to the balloon and the US government’s disclosure of intelligence about it and China’s balloon espionage program, meanwhile, threatened to further damage the world’s most crucial diplomatic relationship – especially after China hit back by accusing the US of being the world’s most gratuitous spy state. The unanimity of American anger toward China was exemplified by a House resolution condemning China that passed by a stunning 419-0 margin. It followed a growing realization in Washington, and more broadly across the country, that a long-predicted geopolitical confrontation may now be a reality. But despite the united political front in Washington, fury is boiling in both parties over the failure to down the balloon before it traversed the continent amid rising questions about the implications of China’s breach of US airspace. Administration officials faced a gauntlet of criticism from lawmakers during a classified briefing on the issue on Thursday. And Republicans stepped up efforts to brand President Joe Biden as weak over the incursion despite his warning to President Xi Jinping in his State of the Union address earlier this week that he would vigorously defend US sovereignty.
This growing discord threatens to so politicize China policy that it will drain any efforts to defuse an escalating Cold War. The Biden administration wants to pursue those efforts despite the tensions caused by the balloon crisis. There’s also a risk that Republican efforts to leverage the drama for domestic political gain could bust unity over policy toward America’s giant Pacific rival. Such a partisan split would ironically deliver a greater payoff for China’s communist rulers than any information picked up by the balloon over the US. The unanimous House vote on the incident had not been assured. It required Republican leaders to omit language critical of Biden and followed unusual bipartisan cooperation fostered by Texas Rep. Mike McCaul, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and the top Democrat on the panel, New York Rep. Gregory Meeks. The resolution describes the balloon flight as a brazen violation of US sovereignty. McCaul said the bipartisan nature of the vote was critical and called on everyone to stand together against a “common enemy.”
“We wanted it to be America against China – not internal fighting, because China would see that as a moment of weakness, that we’re divided on party lines, and we didn’t want to project that,” McCaul told CNN. This strong signal sent to Beijing raises the possibility that the spy balloon mission has demonstrably hurt China’s interests – especially if it results in a bipartisan zeal to increase defense spending, the size of US arms and equipment packages to allow Taiwan to defend against a possible Chinese attack and more resources to US allies. While there is agreement on the challenge now posed by China, there was mystification and some anger elsewhere in Congress on Thursday, even as officials held classified briefings and the FBI pushed forward on its effort to evaluate intelligence from the remains of the balloon salvaged from the Atlantic after it was shot down on Saturday.
In a Senate hearing, Democrats as well as Republicans, criticized Defense Department officials and questioned why they did not tell Americans more once the balloon was spotted. “You guys have to help me understand why this baby wasn’t taken out long before,” said Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat who could be facing a tough reelection next year. The balloon floated above his state, which hosts US missile installations. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski was furious that the Chinese balloon crossed her state. “As an Alaskan, I am so angry,” Murkowski said. “If you’re going to have Russia coming at you, if you’re going to have China coming at you, we know exactly how they come. They come up and they go over Alaska.”
Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, said he understood why the White House might have kept China’s balloon program classified but added, “We all understand that some of the desire to keep things classified, it has to do with not wanting to disclose to the public things that might be inconvenient politically for the department.” The White House has previously explained that it waited until the balloon was off the Carolinas to shoot it down based on Pentagon advice that doing so before could endanger lives and property on the ground. Officials also said they took steps to ensure it was not an intelligence threat as it wafted across the country.
But some Republicans are accusing the White House of a cover-up that they think exposes Biden as feckless and unfit to be commander-in-chief as he eyes reelection, despite his strong role in standing up to Russia over Ukraine.
“I think the public, and Congress, would never have known about this if the Billings, Montana, paper hadn’t published a picture that showed the balloon and US assets tracking the balloon. I think their plan was clearly to keep this a secret,” Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley told CNN after a classified briefing. “The United States was grossly unprepared, this administration was grossly unprepared, and frankly I think it was a huge mistake for them not to take down the balloon before it entered the continental United States,” Hawley added.
While the House vote on the resolution condemning China was unanimous, many Republicans used the debate before the resolution passed to lacerate the Biden administration. “We watched in real time from our backyards and workplaces as a foreign aircraft equipped with spyware navigated over our neighborhoods, our military installations and our vital infrastructure,” said Missouri GOP Rep. Ann Wagner, the vice chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “The administration again showed the dictatorship in Beijing that they could again be bullied. President Biden’s weakness and indecision sends a dangerous signal to our adversaries like Iran and Russia and North Korea.”
Still, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney said he came away from the classified briefing more confident in the administration. “I believe that the administration, the president, our military and intelligence agencies, acted skillfully and with care,” Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, said. Besides the classified briefings, Biden administration officials divulged new information about the balloon to the public Thursday, some of it gleaned by flybys by U-2 spy planes before it was downed. A senior State Department official said the balloon had been capable of conducting signals intelligence collection – or intelligence gathered by electronic means – and was part of a fleet that had flown over “more than 40 countries across five continents.”
Beijing is likely to be irked by more details being made public about its balloon program, as evidenced by comments by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning in a briefing Thursday. “I am not aware of any ‘fleet of balloons,'” Mao said. “That narrative is probably part of the information and public opinion warfare the US has waged on China. As to who is the world’s number one country of spying, eavesdropping and surveillance, that is plainly visible to the international community,” she added. Lawmakers were told Thursday that the order to send the balloon was dispatched without Xi’s knowledge, sources familiar with Hill briefings said. But the idea Xi was unaware of balloon “is the working theory and an ongoing intelligence gap,” a source briefed on the matter said.
Intelligence experts in the United States have been perplexed at the political furor stoked by a mere balloon – a comparatively unsophisticated asset that pales in significance compared to multi-pronged Chinese intelligence operations against the United States including economic, cyber and traditional espionage. Indeed, the US mounts a similarly broad collection mission against China, which was exposed when a Chinese jet fighter collided with a US spy plane in international airspace over the South China Sea in 2001. But the balloon flight, over US territory, has had a symbolic impact greater than that so far generated amid years of building tensions with China, including over Taiwan. “I would never have imagined that my Saturday afternoon would have been disrupted due to a Chinese spy balloon not – only that floated across most of South Carolina, it floated across the entire continental United States,” said freshman Republican Rep. Russell Fry whose South Carolina district contains coastal areas where the balloon was shot down.
“It does – if you watch it, and you were there on the ground – sound like it was straight out of a sci-fi movie,” he said on the House floor, blasting the Biden administration for negligence and bemoaning an international incident that unfolded off the shores of Myrtle Beach. In the Senate, the dramatic events of the past week have caused a reassessment of years of US-China policy, which has seen efforts by the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations to try to usher China peacefully into the global economy degenerate into a brewing confrontation in the Trump and Biden administrations. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said at a hearing that the Biden administration did not “see another Cold War, but we do ask everyone to play by the same set of rules.”
The problem, however, is that China interprets such US calls as an attempt to thwart what it sees as its rightful rise as a regional and global superpower. Sherman argued that US policy in the 21st century designed to head off confrontation had not failed, but that conditions in China had changed. “Xi Jinping is not the Xi Jinping of the 1990’s that we all thought we knew,” Sherman told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She added that China under Xi was “the only country that wants to change that rules-based order, that can successfully do so and are trying to make that happen.” “It is true that our way of life, our democracy, our belief in our values, in the rules-based international order is being challenged,” she continued. “And we have to meet that challenge.”