Spy balloon and unidentified objects put China threat center stage
Senators on Wednesday will receive their second briefing in two weeks on the rising military threat posed by China, an issue that is fast emerging as the biggest area of shared concern between Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill.
Some lawmaker and experts see escalating tensions with China as the dawn of a new Cold War that will require a major ramp up military- and technology-related spending on stealth bombers, semiconductors, artificial intelligence and communications technology.
There’s also a growing push among lawmakers to crack down on TikTok, which is headquartered in Beijing, and on Chinese cyber operations that have harvested millions of Americans’ personal information.
Lawmakers say the flight of a Chinese surveillance balloon across Alaska and the continental United States has exposed a worrisome gap in U.S. air defenses and exposed a general lack of preparedness for a military conflict with China.
“There is a rising wave of concern and it’s bipartisan about the clear and present danger that China represents right now,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said.
Blumenthal said the timing of the balloon’s flight across the United States days before Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to travel to Beijing to meet with China’s minister of foreign affairs was a display of Chinese “arrogance and recklessness.”
Veteran senators say they’re getting a sense of deja vu reminding them of mentality in Washington and across the country during the Cold War, which spanned four decades of military and economic tensions between the United States and former Soviet Union.
“I can remember when things that were communist or Soviet were suspect. I think China is going through right now because of their decision to support [Russian President Vladimir] Putin in Ukraine,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), who noted that some countries in Eastern Europe are losing enthusiasm for Chinese investment because of the war.
Durbin said “there’s no question” that Congress is focusing more on the threat posed by China.
“It raises concerns because I can remember the days of the Cold War. This is a different situation but it’s the type of the thing that the United States cannot and should not ignore,” he said.
Senators also vented their frustration Monday over the lack of information about three more objects that U.S. fighter planes shot down over Alaska, Canada and Lake Huron in recent days.
“The administration has still not been able to divulge any meaningful information about what was shot down. What in the world is going on?” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) asked on the Senate floor.
Senators are scheduled to receive two classified briefings this week.
The first at 10 a.m. Tuesday will cover the unidentified objects shot down on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Monday “we don’t know who owns them.”
The second briefing will take place at 3 p.m. Wednesday and will focus more broadly on U.S.-Chinese relations.
“I think they’re probably going to drill down a little more on the relationship, particularly in light of what’s happening. A lot’s happened since the last briefing last week, you got three more balloons that have been shot down,” Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) said.
Thune said the threat posed by China is now one of the top issues on Capitol Hill.
“If you don’t get national security right, the rest is conversation,” he said. “It’s very high on the list.”
Senators and policy experts are asking whether the United States would have the ability to send enough weapons to Taiwan to fight off a Chinese invasion given the strain supporting the war in Ukraine has had on American stockpiles.
“I don’t think we’re ready. We need to get ready,” said Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), an adviser to the Senate GOP leadership when asked if the Pentagon would face difficulties arming both Taiwan and Ukraine in two separate regional conflicts without compromising U.S. military preparedness.
Michael O’Hanlon, the director of the Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy and Technology at the Brookings Institution, pointed out the Unite States already spends “quite a bit more on defense now than we did during the Cold War in inflation-adjusted dollars.”
But he expects the defense budget could keep on growing despite recent calls for fiscal reform on Capitol Hill.
“I expect that sustained defense budget increases of at least modest magnitude still make sense and still may happen despite the size of the debt and deficit,” he said.
O’Hanlon said “a good part of what we have been doing for five years” to increase the Pentagon’s budget has been aimed at deterring Chinese aggression.
Other policy experts say there’s still a lot more work needs to be done to counter China’s global ambitions.
“What the balloon incident really laid bare is how not on our game we are,” said Danielle Pletka, a senior fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
“I think this has been a big wake up call,” she said. “Our hope is that it’s a cold war. The way that China seems to be planning, it doesn’t seem to be cold.
“China is intent on creating a world that is subservient to China’s interests,” she added. “It is an ideological fight as it was with the Soviet Union, it’s also very much a nationalist fight as well because Chinese communist dogma may be robust but at the end of the day they’re also very aggressively nationalistic.”
Lawmakers are expected to ramp up discussions on strengthening the U.S. military posture in the Pacific and alliances with Asian countries to contain China and reducing the dependence of the American economy on Chinese technology and products.
“There’s no question we need invest more and better and smarter in defense,” Pletka said.
She also cited vulnerabilities in the supply chain and the need “to clarify our alliances.”
“The reality is that as long as China is part of our technology supply chain, the notion that we are somehow developing some sort of independence is ridiculous,” she added. “We need to decouple strategic industries.
Sen. Thom Tillis (N.C.), a counselor to the Senate Republican leadership, said the COVID-19 pandemic exposed an overreliance on Chinese imports.
“We can’t forget where we were two years ago at the height of COVID,” he said. “This isn’t about us becoming self-sufficient but not having the reliance we have on that part of the world.”
Tillis said that at last year’s NATO summit in Madrid, “the ‘strategic concept’ noted China multiple times after never having ever identified it as a threat to the NATO countries.”
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