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Lessons and mysteries of ‘balloongate’

In this photo provided by Brian Branch, a large balloon drifts above the Kingstown, N.C. area, with an airplane and its contrail seen below it. The United States says it is a Chinese spy balloon moving east over America at an altitude of about 60,000 feet (18,600 meters), but China insists the balloon is just an errant civilian airship used mainly for meteorological research that went off course due to winds and has only limited “self-steering” capabilities. (Brian Branch via AP)

Now that a decent interval has passed since the weekend spectacle of “balloongate,” what, beyond the cancellation of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Beijing, does it mean in the larger canvas of the increasingly fraught U.S.-China relationship? There are some clear and troubling takeaways and lingering mysteries about China’s intent.

For many Americans, it brought the China problem up close and personal. It is one thing to read about the challenge from Beijing’s large ambitions; it is quite another to see it in the form of a Chinese spy balloon flying over your house. The media’s and congressional Republicans’ frantic reaction was both a reflection of the rarity of the phenomenon and something of a Rorschach test of U.S. antipathy for China.

Department of Defense (DOD) officials said the balloon entered U.S. territory over Alaska on Jan. 28, veered into Canada and returned into U.S. airspace over Idaho on Jan. 31. President Biden authorized shooting it down last Wednesday, deferring to the Defense Department about best options. That the spy vehicle lingered over sensitive military sites in Montana was an indicator of the balloon’s purpose, though Beijing falsely claimed it was a stray weather balloon.

Moreover, that the debris scattered over seven miles offshore South Carolina helps explain why it was not shot down sooner — concern for the safety of civilians from falling debris. The DOD also explained that while monitoring the balloon, they jammed its radars, curbing transmissions to China and learned much about how and what the balloon was doing. Add to that recovered debris and it appears to be a net plus for U.S. intelligence.

Nations spy on each other and have for 4,000 years. In retrospect, Republicans’ near hysterical criticism of the Biden administration as being “soft” on China appears to be self-serving political theater.

In contrast, consider the EP-3 episode, in which Beijing forced a U.S. Navy spy plane that collided with a Chinese fighter jet, tailing it to land on the Chinese island of Hainan and held the plane and its 24-man crew for 11 days. After days of tension and heated rhetoric from both sides, the crew and plane were returned after a U.S. apology. Relative to Balloongate, the newly arrived Bush administration and Congress’s reaction seems a case of controlled rage and sobriety.

Even more troubling than China’s false explanation of Balloongate are mysteries about China’s behavior and intent in what amounts to a major unforced error.

For starters, why did the incident occur at a moment when Chinese President Xi Jinping is opening up to the West and seeking to repair damage from his overreaching foreign policy undermining his policy? That was the point of Blinken’s visit, the first by a U.S. secretary of state in six years.

This raises the question of what Beijing’s intent was, and why this happened now. As DOD officials explained, China’s spy balloons have entered U.S. airspace before — three times during the Trump administration. But they have not lingered over U.S. nuclear missile silos like those in Montana.

There are several possible explanations. Is it possible China’s defense intelligence establishment acted independently? DOD says the spy balloon was not gaining any intel China could obtain through satellite surveillance. Were they trying to activate U.S. radars to capture electronic signatures for reconnaissance purposes? Was a hardline Chinese Communist Party (CCP) faction trying to undermine efforts to halt the death spiral of U.S.-China relations? Why did DOD’s Chinese interlocutors in phone conversations cling to the demonstrably false weather balloon talking points rather than seriously discuss how to resolve the issue?

These mysteries help explain why fear is mounting that the U.S. and China are on a trajectory toward conflict. They also illustrate why President Biden has sought to erect guardrails to manage the relationship in times of crisis. In several risk reduction agreements, the U.S. has, in theory, established hotlines to mitigate crises and prevent miscalculation. But it’s been a challenge just to get China’s generals to pick up the phone, let alone have a frank conversation.

Biden was right to postpone Blinken’s trip to China, but it is also imperative to resume it as conditions allow to use this episode as a teaching moment.

The two Chinese characters for danger are often translated as crisis and opportunity. But getting to the opportunity part is problematic. Why? The reaction to Balloongate in Weibo, China’s popular social media platform, was a mix of mocking what they saw as an overreaction and those who were incensed, wanting a tougher government reaction.

There is a mutual demonization that puts political pressure on both Beijing and Washington to be “tough.” And in Congress, there’s a heated competition to show who can bash China harder.

There are plenty of legitimate U.S. grievances about China, many reflected in sanctions, tariffs and opprobrium for human rights abuses. But, ultimately, the two largest economies and nuclear weapons states need to find a basis to manage competitive coexistence.

During the Cold War, it took life-threatening confrontations such as the Cuban Missile Crisis before the U.S. and USSR found a stable balance. One hopes that the balloon episode is not a dress rehearsal for something worse.

Robert A. Manning is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. He served as senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs, as a member of the U.S. secretary of state’s policy planning staff and on the National Intelligence Council Strategic Futures Group. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.

Tags Antony Blinken Biden biden administration China Chinese aggression Chinese Communist Party Chinese spy balloon Chinese surveillance balloon US-China relations Xi Jinping Xi Jinping

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