It only took one balloon to drive the Washington political elite into a frothing rage. On Thursday, the Pentagon announced that a Chinese surveillance balloon had been detected hovering over Montana. The Chinese government acknowledged ownership of the slow-moving aircraft and claimed it was a weather balloon that had been forced off course by accident or “force majeure.” This claim was rejected by the United States government, which claimed that the balloon was an instrument of espionage. President Joe Biden had ordered the balloon to be shot down as soon as it was safe to do so, which turned out to be on Saturday when the flying object was no longer over land but rather off the coast of South Carolina.
In a normal nation at peace, the balloon story should have been a minor curiosity. After all, it’s no secret that large nations spy on each other—usually with satellites and airplanes. As Jon B. Wolfsthal, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, felt compelled to ask, “People do know the US used to conduct high altitude surveillance flights over China and USSR for decades, right?”
In 1960, the Soviet Union shot down a U-2 spy plane flown over their territory by the American pilot Francis Gary Powers, igniting a diplomatic crisis that led to the cancellation of a planned summit between President Dwight Eisenhower and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. In 2001, another American spy plane that had been skirting near Chinese airspace got into an aerial scuffle with a People’s Liberation Army Navy fighter jet. The American plane ended up making a crash landing on Chinese soil, on Hainan Island. This also sparked a diplomatic row, with the Chinese government demanding and receiving an apology before returning the American crew and the wreckage of their plane (which had been disassembled by the Chinese).
By any reasonable standard, the alleged Chinese spy balloon was a much more benign affair. As a Pentagon official acknowledged on Saturday, “The balloon did not pose a military or physical threat.” The official further admitted that “Chinese balloons briefly transited the continental United States at least three times” during the presidency of Donald Trump.
The utter banality of the balloon did not stop both Democrats and Republicans from acting as if this were a Cold War crisis of maximum danger. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken put on the same act of offended righteousness as Khrushchev in 1960 by canceling a long-planned trip to Beijing that was scheduled to start on Sunday. Democratic Representative Adam Schiff lamented that the leisurely travel of the balloon over the United States was “a bare-faced demonstration of China’s aggression.”
While China-bashing has in recent years become a bipartisan affair, the fact that Democrats indulge in it so frequently empowers Republicans to be even more xenophobic.
Republicans, ignoring the earlier unchallenged balloon excursions under Trump, tried to use the incident as proof of Biden’s weakness in the face of the implacable Asian foe. The rhetoric was especially indignant before the balloon was shot down. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, no stranger to hot air, used the occasion to revive one of his favorite paranoid fantasies, the United States electrical grid being incapacitated by an Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) weapon. Gingrich theorized on Twitter:
The Chinese Communist balloons could be trial runs for low visibility deliver of devastating EMP weapons. Read Bill Forstchen’s One Second After for a vivid, accurate demonstration of how devastating these balloons could be. This is madness.
Senior US defense and diplomatic officials do NOT want to shoot down the Chinese Communist balloon? Anthony Blinken, with $1 million a year from the Chinese funded Penn Biden Institute, protects the balloon instead of America.
Marjorie Taylor Greene conjured up an equally fantastical scenario by suggesting a vigilante solution via an ordinary citizen, perhaps with a pistol, shooting down a balloon. Greene tweeted,
Literally every regular person I know is talking about how to shoot down the Chinese Spy Balloon. It would be great if an average Joe shot it down because China Joe won’t. Regular Americans can do everything better than the government and actually care about our country.
In point of fact, shooting the balloon with a gun would not have worked. As the sheriff’s office of York County, South Carolina explained, the balloon was 60,000 feet in the air—so too far to shoot at. “Your rifle rounds WILL NOT reach it,” the sheriff’s office insisted. “Be responsible. What goes up will come down, including your bullets.”
Representative Joe Wilson, equally angry and scared, commented, “The catastrophic Chinese Spy Balloon spectacle clearly threatened American families from Alaska to my home community in South Carolina and confirms President Biden and Vice President Harris should resign.”
Senator Mitt Romney tweeted, “A big Chinese balloon in the sky and millions of Chinese TikTok balloons on our phones. Let’s shut them all down.” Since TikTok is about as ephemeral a threat as the balloon, Romney’s tweet revealed perhaps more than he intended.
The Wall Street Journal echoed an old Cold War trope by warning of a “balloon gap” opening up. This called to mind presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s false claim that there was a “missile gap” that meant the United States was falling behind on ballistic technology compared to the Soviet Union. The idea of a “missile gap” was brilliantly mocked in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) with a character warning of a post-nuclear struggle to build mine shafts to house the survivors: “Mr. President, we must not allow…a mine shaft gap!”
If this level of hysteria calls to mind the delusional paranoia of the Cold War, that’s not an accident.
Since 2016 there has been a sea change in the Washington consensus on China, a transformation that had causes that predated Donald Trump but was crystalized by his presidency. From Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama, the bipartisan China consensus was diplomatic engagement and economic integration, with the goal of grooming China into being a junior partner of American global hegemony. Under Obama there were already signs that this engagement wasn’t working and would need to change. Voices on the political left like Senator Bernie Sanders were critical of China’s human rights record and the way neoliberal free trade rested on exploitation in China while driving down wages in the United States. Among centrists and right-wingers, there was growing anger at China for allegedly having expansionistic foreign policy goals.
In his careful way, Barack Obama was moving the United States toward a tougher stance towards China. Trump, in his normal loudmouth manner, followed this tendency but made it more strident. In 2016, candidate Trump said, “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country.” As president, Trump, with his usual incoherence, tried to create a chummy personal relationship with Chinese president Xi Jinping while attempting to renegotiate trade deals. Trump also permitted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to adopt strident anti-China policies that included a call for regime change.
Joe Biden, to a striking degree, has continued Trump’s China policy.
In a recent interview with The New York Times that predated the balloon “crisis,” Jessica Chen Weiss, a China scholar at Cornell who briefly worked for the Biden administration, noted that Biden “started out with a pretty tough set of policies that had been inherited from the Trump administration, and which ultimately, didn’t really change.”
The Biden administration has repeatedly said it doesn’t want a new Cold War with China but instead hopes to calibrate a healthy competition that works in conjunction with cooperation on matters like climate change. But as Weiss and other experts warn, it’s easy for competition to spiral out of control and for cooperation to be sidelined. As Weiss told The New York Times, “I worry that we are at the beginning stages of an escalating ideological competition, where the United States and China no longer remain chiefly interested in defending our respective systems but are, in fact, as the United States and Soviet Union were during the Cold War, engaged in going around the world, meddling in various places to put our thumb on the ledger in order to counter the perceived influence of our geopolitical rival.”
The flap over the balloon shows that this sort of Cold War thinking has already taken hold in Washington among prominent figures in both parties. We’re not quite at a Cold War in terms of global military policy, but the bipartisan anger towards China has generated a new consensus where even very minor squabbles, as over a wayward balloon, can quickly escalate.
The roots of this emerging cold war are complex. Certainly, there are legitimate grounds for undoing neoliberal trade policies, and also for criticizing China’s human rights record. But as Jake Werner, research fellow at the Quincy Institute, notes, there is also a tremendous amount of threat inflation, with China’s alleged danger to American security being vastly overstated.
In many ways, China is a convenient foe for the bipartisan elite since it allows for a consensus that can overcome political gridlock.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Robert Kagan, a neoconservative hawk who is influential among both Democrats and Republicans, speculated, “If ever there could be a cure for American political polarization, a conflict with China would be it.” Here is the truly dangerous fantasy that underwrites the shift in China policy: the idea that it’s worth risking a war between the world’s two largest powers in order to restore bipartisan comity in Washington. Kagan’s previous major achievement was being a key ideological architect of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. With the possibility of a new Cold War against China, Kagan has a chance to outdo even his earlier fiasco.