Military fighter jets have just shot down the Chinese Communist Party’s gigantic spy balloon that had been hovering about 60,000 feet over the United States.
The balloon was “taken care of,” to quote President Biden, over the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of South Carolina. Prior to the maneuver, the balloon drifted, unharmed, over our sensitive military sites and fellow citizens. It lingered there, doing what Chinese President Xi Jinping pleased, while rightfully indignant members of Congress representing those violated states took to press releases and cable TV to demand the federal government secure our sovereign airspace. All of this was no doubt churned back through the CCP’s propaganda outlets, smearing America as divided, weak, and foolish.
The degree of the technical military significance to the balloon’s deployment remains unclear, although US officials downplayed the benefit, saying it would gain no more by this massive balloon than by satellites in space. Without more information about the payload it was carrying, the insistence that there is no military benefit raises more questions. But if it’s true that the technical gain is negligible, it makes the symbolism all the more audacious and the political significance unsettling.
Xi Jinping appears to have been mocking the United States, a kind of blimp-sized middle finger to President Biden’s efforts to smooth relations. The relations are fraught, not because of anything the United States has done, but because of the CCP’s decision to engage in threats, provocations, and outright dangerous behavior. In October 2021, the PRC flight-tested a nuclear-capable maneuvering missile that went into space, spanned the globe, including buzzing over the United States, before making its run through the atmosphere and landing in China near its intended target. The response then was to watch and condemn, but not much more.
Chinese fighter jets have been threatening American military assets, repeatedly flying near US aircraft in international airspace in the South China Sea, even flying within twenty feet of an Air Force surveillance plane. American restraint in the face of these dangerous maneuvers is unsustainable, and Biden was right not to continue tolerating Chinese aggression.
The American assertion has been that there are rules that say the international commons belongs to everyone while the sovereignty of nations is inviolable. The Chinese Communist Party’s answer to that is that America no longer makes the rules and is incapable of defending its own sovereignty.
There is also the not-so-little matter of China drawing closer to Russia throughout its unprovoked war against Ukraine. Rather than backing away from Putin, Xi is increasing trade, diplomatic engagement, and military cooperation.
The balloon incident came as Secretary of State Antony Blinken was preparing to meet with the Chinese leader as a follow-on to Biden’s meeting several months ago. Biden’s meeting, along with his conciliatory approach and optimistic tone afterward, seemed to foreshadow a kind of attempt at a reset with China, focused on matters like climate change, while likely setting aside the thornier issues.
Even the CCP’s official explanation about the balloon is a troll. They claimed it was a “civilian airship” merely conducting innocuous meteorological research that “deviated far from its planned course” due to strong winds. Of course, due to the PRC’s national strategy of Civil-Military Fusion in service of the Party’s military, there is no real civilian research program. And for the world’s most sophisticated techno-authoritarian state that boasts of its control and lack of errors, accidentally losing a valuable surveillance blimp the size of three school buses over the territory of your number one rival is quite the accident.
Blinken has called off his trip to meet with Xi, and good for him, as it was the only thing he could have done. No, Xi is not interested in a reset. He’s not interested in talking at all, and is unmotivated even to appear to improve relations with the US, all as he deepens ties with Putin. Perhaps the downing of the balloon will signal to Xi that enough is enough.