Why the Chinese balloon crisis could be a defining moment in the new Cold War

Stephen Collinson

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.
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.
The US military must explain why the balloon was not shot down before traversing the continental US, and the incident threatens to open up tensions between the Pentagon and an under-fire White House over the handling of the incident, as well as debate over what to do next time. The balloon’s ignominious end – burst by a missile fired by a US jet – also plays into volatile Chinese politics. It represents fresh embarrassment for Xi, whose cementing of a third term has been overshadowed by a badly botched effort to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, unprecedented anti-lockdown protests and now a major crisis with the United States. It begs the question of whether the flight was a deliberate act to provoke the US or was a mistake. Or were hawkish Chinese armed forces seeking to embarrass the top leadership, or to derail attempts to ease the temperature with the US ahead of Blinken’s visit?
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. Biden’s decision not to shoot down the balloon until it was over the Atlantic coast offered an easy opening to Republicans keen to label him as weak before his expected reelection bid.
“As usual when it comes to national defense and foreign policy, the Biden administration reacted at first too indecisively and then too late,” McConnell said. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio cast the incident as a blatant challenge to American power, and suggested Biden’s temperate action raised questions over whether he would stand up to worse Chinese threats, for instance over democratic Taiwan. “The message embedded in this to the world is, we can fly a balloon over airspace of the United States of America, and you won’t be able to do anything about it to stop us,” Rubio, the vice chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Other Republicans, including ex-president Donald Trump, pounced when the balloon was not immediately shot down, despite warnings that its vast size could cause damage or deaths on the ground. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton said, for instance, on Fox that “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.” Republicans failed to note that officials said several balloon flights over the US occurred during the Trump administration, although the transiting of those suspected Chinese spy balloons during the previous administration was only discovered after Biden took office, a senior administration official told CNN’s Natasha Bertrand on Sunday. Republicans have long seen hawkishness as a political weapon. But many Democrats also see China as a rising threat, which is likely to trigger hardline policies that will deepen America’s estrangement with its rival. While the Biden administration has faced criticism for not publicizing the balloon earlier in the week, the idea that the president is in China’s pocket is belied by a policy toward the communist giant that has cranked up a confrontational stance adopted by Trump. (The ex-president had initially cozied up to Xi and agreed to a failed trade deal before turning on Beijing when a pandemic that originated in China threatened his reelection bid).
Biden has deepened US ties with Asian allies designed to counter China – securing expanded access to bases in the Philippines, for instance, and reaching agreement with Japan on the offensive capacity of US Marines there in recent weeks. He has also sought to bolster Western access and manufacturing of semi-conductors in a blow to China. If any foreign autocrats see Biden as a soft touch, all they have to do is look at the multi-billion dollar effective proxy war he’s fighting against Russia in Ukraine in the biggest mobilization of the Western alliance since the Soviet Union fell. Still, the political fallout will still likely impede Biden, even if it’s hard to imagine voters making his handling of China – absent a future major crisis – the decisive factor in 2024. The balloon flap is the latest unexpected event, including the controversy over classified vice presidential documents found in his Delaware home and a former office, to frustrate Biden’s attempt to focus on strong job growth and the extremism of the new House Republican majority ahead of his expected run for a second term. The House will seek to rain on his parade further this week with a possible resolution condemning his handling of the surveillance balloon, which could pass before the State of the Union address, CNN’s Melanie Zanona reported.
The political storm could create conditions in the US that will complicate efforts to avert the dangerous plunge in Sino-US relations – the original purpose of Blinken’s mission. If Biden further escalates US reaction to the incident, after shooting down the balloon, he could create a furious counter-reaction in Beijing that will make the tensions even worse. There were signs in the run-up to Blinken’s visit that Xi’s government, beset with problems at home, wanted to tone down the heat of the relationship at least, building on the Chinese leader’s meeting with Biden in Bali last year. There had even been speculation that the trip could lead to an announcement of another summit between the leaders this year.
But if the balloon incident turns US public opinion further against China, the president will have even less latitude for diplomacy aimed at slowing the pace toward confrontation. Another complication is a possible visit to Taiwan by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to follow the one by Democratic predecessor Nancy Pelosi last year, which took place despite White House discomfort. China reacted furiously over that trip by initiating massive naval exercises close to the democratic island. It has already warned that such a visit would violate the bedrock “One China” principle that governs relations between Washington and Beijing – a position the US does not accept. Given political uproar in Washington, McCarthy, who just set up a bipartisan committee to probe what he says is the threat from Communist China, has even greater incentives to travel to Taipei now despite the current extreme tensions. “I don’t think China can tell me to go, any time, at any place,” McCarthy said after meeting Biden last week. Another risk is that the balloon crisis could exacerbate already tense situations where US and Chinese forces come into close contact, including on and over the South China Sea and around Taiwan. A miscommunication between ships’ captains, for instance, that boils over into a military clash could set off a far wider escalation. This is why experts counseling a restoration of calm were dismayed by a leaked memo written by US Air Force Gen. Michael Minihan that warned that his “gut” tells him that America needs to be ready for war with China within two years. The memo does not match US assessments of Beijing’s capabilities or assessments about its designs on Taiwan. But it deepened the sense that a conflict is brewing and may be inevitable.
There are plenty of precedents for disastrous moments in US-China relations being defused – testimony to the extreme economic and humanitarian price both sides, and the rest of the world, would pay in the event of a wider conflict. During the Kosovo war in 1999, for instance, US bombs crashed into the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in what NATO said was an accident but that caused an eruption of fury in China. In 2001, just after President George W. Bush took office, a US surveillance plane and a Chinese jet collided over the South China Sea. The Chinese pilot was killed and intense diplomacy was needed to free the US crew, who made an emergency landing on a Chinese island, 11 days later. These incidents, however, happened in a different age, when US policy was designed to usher China into the world economy, as a competitor but not an adversary. That process failed after China took a nationalist turn under Xi and as its power and ambitions grew at an astonishing rate.
Two decades on, Beijing’s aims are increasingly seen in Washington as incompatible with US hopes of promoting democracy, a rules-based international system and its own power in the Pacific. But when the US talks about putting guardrails around its relationship with China and protecting the Western-backed rule of law, Beijing believes America wants to thwart its own great power destiny. As Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning put it on January 31, “We are against defining the entire China-US relations with competition alone and using competition as an excuse to contain and suppress others.” 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.