Anyone who’s followed the news this week, in American or in Denmark, knows about the Chinese Balloon spotted drifting over Montana a few days ago.
“Spy balloon!” cried America.
“Weather balloon!” shouted the CCP.
I didn’t follow the story very closely because it seemed awfully trivial and stupid, but that just goes to show how shallow and stupid I am. The triviality and stupidity of the story itself are what make it so interesting.
Why did the international establishment press find this story so important and engaging?
Within 24 hours of the story breaking, for example, Berlingske and Danmarks Radio (DR) each published more articles about the balloon than they have about Joe Biden’s confidential document problems or the newest revelations from the Hunter Biden laptop saga.
(DR published six articles about the balloon in the first 24 hours; Berlingske published three. Even more have been published since.)
They were hardly alone: it was the dominant story around the world right up until an America F-22 finally shot the balloon down Saturday evening (Danish time)—after it had crossed the country and drifted over the Atlantic.
Presumably the big driver of media attention here is that it pits the world’s two biggest superpowers against each other. That’s always an interesting angle.
The most sensible assessment of the affair I’ve seen was something I’ve seen mentioned in a couple of places.
On the BBC’s website, one Arthur Holland Michel from the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs says that “It’s possible that being spotted was the whole point.”
Over at Time.com, the director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute Bec Shrimpton says “It is bold, in that it was always likely to be detected, it was always likely to be seen.“
That’s what military experts like her find most notable about the balloon, especially given the timing of its emergence—just after the U.S. reinvigorated its military alliance with the Philippines and before Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s scheduled trip to Beijing, which has now been postponed.
The whole thing has an eerily familiar vibe to it: anyone old enough to remember the Cold War can surely remember the cat-and-mouse games in which the US and USSR were always engaged: probing and poking at one another, testing limits, seeking weaknesses.
It’s a game the west has never seemed very good at it. I’d like to think that’s because we’re so much better at it that our own little efforts are never discovered, but as the military people I just cited make clear, getting caught is the whole point.
The CCP’s phony-baloney apology and excuses aren’t supposed to suffice as explanations, or to be at all exculpatory: they’re the Great Game way of saying, “Yeah, we did it—whatcha gonna do about it?“
Russian jets routinely buzz the nations of Scandinavia and the Baltic states; Chinese naval vessels harass boats in what ought to be the international waters of the South China Sea; North Korea keeps lobbing missiles over Japan.
“Whoops,” they say, “sorry for the inconvenience.”
And then they watch very carefully to see how we react. That’s the return on their investment: the intelligence they gather from our reaction.
When do NATO jets buzz Russian airspace? When do NATO fleets harass commercial Chinese traffic? When do western nations conduct missile tests that violate the airspace of their ideological adversaries? When do American weather balloons accidently drift over Russia, China, Iran, or North Korea?
I’m not saying these things don’t happen: I expect and hope they do, even though I fear they don’t. But whether or not they do, they never make the news. We never spend multiple news cycles worrying aloud what American weather balloons were doing over Xinjiang province, or why American F-16s were violating Russian airspace. And if they don’t make the news, they can’t provoke a public response that we can learn from.
We can hypothesize that we don’t do these things because our intelligence is so advanced that we already know how our adversaries would react in any possible scenario, although the empirical data to support such a hypothesis is a little tough to locate at the moment.
What is the return on investment for allowing a Chinese balloon of any kind to make its way across the continental United States before shooting it down? What are we telling the Chinese?
The Chinese balloon should have been blown out of the sky while it was over the desolate emptiness of Alaska, northern Idaho, or Montana—or, with Canadian cooperation, the vast empty spaces of British Columbia. President Biden could then have called Chinese Ambassador Qin Gang into the White House and said something like:
Hey man, sorry we had to blow the thing up, but here’s the thing: we can’t have weather balloons wandering into our airspace like that. It’s a bad look. No joke. ‘Cause here’s the deal: if we let Chinese weather balloons over America, then all Putin has to do is send a spy balloon over here and say it’s a weather balloon. Right? Listen, you’re a straight shooter, Qin, just like your boss, and I know you guys’d never do anything like that, but Putin might, so we can’t let anyone think we’re gonna let any kind of foreign high-altitude balloon into our air space. Now how’s about we have a coupla ice-cream cones and forget the whole thing ever happened?
Instead, as usual, we got the same kind of vigorous accommodation that Biden demonstrated to such catastrophic effect with his remarks about the minor consequences he’d impose on Russia for a “minor incursion” into Ukraine back in January 2022.
Notice that my recommended talking points for the president allow him to lie flagrantly—the one thing he’s always done the most reliably—while acting in America’s interests. Instead, the president chose to lie in defense of CCP interests: “we can’t risk the debris falling on civilians” he lied, and the balloon was allowed to cross the nation unscathed before being shot down just a few miles off the short of South Carolina (maritime civilians are apparently impervious to debris). Instead of vigorous advocacy of American interests, Biden offered vigorous accommodation of CCP interests.
Is it likely the CCP got any intel they couldn’t have gotten from their myriad spy satellites? I doubt it, and most of the military people who study this kind of stuff seem to doubt it. (As comedians including Bill Maher and the cast of Saturday Night Live have noted, the CCP doesn’t need ballons to spy on us: that’s what Tik Tok is for.) But as the guys I quoted earlier make clear: that’s not the point. The intel they were after was almost surely how we’d react. And now they know: the American president will lie to the American people to accommodate the CCP.
And the opposition party will rant and rave against the president’s fecklessness to score political points rather than taking their concerns behind closed doors.
The president will say some very stern and serious words, and cancel a meeting because doing so lets him say he’s actually done something.
And only when action is entirely meaningless will any actual action be taken—mainly so the president can strut around pretending to be resolute.
“I came. I saw. I popped the balloon. . . eventually”
I know this isn’t how the left sees things. I think they see themselves as wise and mature, seasoned and responsible. They’re just de-escalating. They’re the adults, you see. They know our adversaries are just striking a pose for domestic consumption; the smart thing is to reason with them, use the levers of economics and diplomacy to straighten things out before they get messy. We don’t want to provoke them. We wouldn’t want to risk an escalation!
It’s a harmless balloon, for Pete’s sake, who cares? Are you scared of a balloon? You want to risk World War III with China over a balloon?
As a Sky News “analysis” concludes:
Increasing hostility between the United States and China carries danger for us all.
The Biden view appears to be that a balloon that poses no military threat and gathers limited intelligence isn’t the end of the world.
Nor should it be.
As I noted up front, that was my own gut reaction to the story when it broke. Because in terms of the balloon itself, that was all true—and is still all true.
But it’s not about the balloon.
It’s about the reaction to the balloon.
(Just like so many of our current problems aren’t because of the pandemic, but because of our reaction to the pandemic. Which also came from the CCP.)
And history is very clear that when it comes to great power politics, the most provocative thing of all is weakness.