Beijing’s balloon blunder(s) these past few weeks have sent shockwaves in the world of geopolitics. The balloon was first spotted in Alaska in late January and was thought to be a Chinese space light. It then made its way into Canadian airspace, then floated back into the US, making its way to Montana. It is important to note that Montana is home to the Malmstrom Air Force Base, where some intercontinental missiles are held. The saga ends on February 4 when F-22 fighter jets down the balloon via missile near the North Carolinian coast. Air traffic in nearby airports in the Carolinas was halted in order to carry out the operation. All eyes are on Beijing and DC as more details emerge about the spying capabilities of the balloon. China’s Foreign Ministry argues that it is a “civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological”, even as US officials have announced that it contained electronic surveillance technology capable of monitoring communications. The same announcement also detailed that the flight covered over 40 countries on multiple continents.
With all the damning evidence mounting against China, heads around the world turned to see how Biden would react. This is the first salacious international snafu, to this scale, of his presidency. Not only did Biden serve as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he famously campaigned on strengthening alliance relations that he argues Trump broke during his four years in office. (One can only imagine how a Trump presidency would have handled blatant espionage.) In the first days of the balloon’s adventure, Biden was under fire for not shooting it down immediately. Later in the week, he came out stronger during the State of the Union address saying, “Make no mistake: as we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did,” He went on to single out President Xi Jinping by name further into the speech. Some pundits argue this was an escalation of the US’s otherwise rather melodramatic response.
Just two days later, Biden backtracked by saying, “It’s not a major breach.” An unidentified object flying over US airspace shot down by fighter jets… Is this not a threat to sovereignty? This comment was a volte-face from the State of the Union speech earlier in the week. The u-turn made the former speech seem to be empty words, as opposed to major policy bolstering. No matter which statement more accurately depicts Biden’s true stratagem, it created a sense that he was caught with his foot in his mouth.
By all accounts, Biden meekly reacted following the violation of international law. Although some strong language was used, the lack of a hardline is clear. The House of Representatives issued a resolution calling the incident a brazen violation of US sovereignty, adding some backbone to Washington’s overall reply. The most notable decision was the postponement of the US Secretary of State’s visit to Beijing this past week. The trip was to be a major moment for Biden’s foreign policy, so the last minute ditch of plans was a major gesture of condemnation.
I am far from a conspiracy theorist, but the idea that the balloon simply got lost because of wind? China is rumored to have one of the most extensive espionage programs in the world. We are not talking about high-altitude satellites. These are bright white balloons, clearly visible to the blind eye on the ground. There was no attempt in the design to be conspicuous in nature. I struggle to believe that China had bad luck and tried to cover their tracks. Instead, with the current public information and a bit of context, all signs point to a deliberate attempt to provocate their dueling world power. Less than a provocation, do I see the matter as a diplomatic “toe in the water” to gauge just how serious the Americans view a Chinese security threat. A pilot balloon, dare I say…
So what message has the US sent back? We will cancel meetings and say lots of words. Even if the balloon truly was a human error (which I strongly doubt), Biden has signaled that it will take a lot more to get a proper reaction out of the US. As more information gets released about the true doings of the apparatus, the response will be sure to strengthen. But Washington must view this as a test of just how far they will bend. And as of yet, the US’s stance seems to be fly-by- night.
Featured image: Dado Ruvic via Reuters