It’s hard to imagine a worse warm up for Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s critical talks in Beijing, which are expected in the next few days, than news that a suspected Chinese spy balloon is floating merrily across the US.
The Pentagon says it’s been tracking the balloon – the size of three buses, according to a defense official – for several days but made the decision not to shoot it down. It reasoned that the balloon was wafting well above commercial and military air lanes – and that it was not a huge intelligence threat.
This seems a reasonable position since Chinese surveillance satellites with a far greater capacity for espionage are known to hover in space over the US. And officials said it’s not the first time the US has tracked one of Beijing’s balloons during this and previous administrations.
This is hardly a DEFCON-1 situation. But the balloon offers a perfect glimpse into one of the most destructive factors driving the US and China toward confrontation. The politics of the world’s most critical geopolitical relationship are so torqued in both countries that any incident can set off a new round of recriminations. That’s what Blinken is traveling to Beijing to address.
Washington is already in an uproar.
Republicans – always keen to portray President Joe Biden as soft on China, even though he’s actually been at least as tough as ex-President Donald Trump – are up in arms over what they are portraying as a violation of US sovereignty.
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“Information strongly suggests the (Defense) Department failed to act with urgency in responding to this airspace incursion by a high-altitude surveillance balloon. No incursion should be ignored, and should be dealt with appropriately,” said Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
House Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy – who has already warned China this week it can’t stop him visiting Taiwan if he wants – demanded a briefing about the balloon for the Gang of Eight congressional leaders.
“China’s brazen disregard for US sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed and President Biden cannot be silent,” the California Republican said.
It is fair to wonder why China sent a spy balloon over the US before Blinken’s critical visit, with both sides apparently keen to arrest the dangerous plummet in their relations. It seems far less likely this is a deliberate provocation since there’s reason to think China wants to turn down the heat too. Perhaps Beijing lost control of its balloon. Still, if a US balloon was being blown across the Chinese mainland right now, it’s likely President Xi Jinping’s government would wring maximum propaganda value out of the incident.
China’s Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry have so far not responded to CNN’s request for comment.
Going into the Blinken talks, there had seemed to be a small window to improve relations between the long, tense period that led up to Xi’s norm-busting securing of a third term in office, which may have contributed to a nationalistic Chinese attitude that worsened tensions with the US, and the next American presidential election. (White House races almost always degenerate into China bashing that angers Beijing.)
But the atmosphere around the talks had already been soured by a memo by US Air Force Gen. Michael Minihan first reported by NBC last week, which warned that his “gut” tells him to be ready for war with China – and not just in theory, but in two years. That prediction doesn’t track with US government assessments of the geopolitical tussle in the Pacific or necessarily with events in the region. But it showed how isolated events can send Sino-US tensions soaring.
Now, floating over that inflammatory atmosphere, we have a Chinese spy balloon. This incident may well turn out to be innocuous, but it’s another small drama that will not only overshadow Blinken’s trip, but will further fan the political flames that elevate hawks in Washington and Beijing who see what they want to see – an inevitable march toward conflict – and make that dangerous scenario more likely.