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Belated Balloon Thoughts
It sure would be nice if everyone calmed the hell down.
The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has been and is still on the road, which means that I missed both the start of the Chinese
weather spy balloon kerfuffle and the end of it — for the balloon at least. Thankfully, it appears as though I also missed the last 48 hours of hyperbolic news cycles about it.
Some very quick and hot takes:
Hoo boy did the Chinese government screw this up. This is not a news cycle they wanted at all. They wanted Secretary of State Blinken to proceed with his visit to Beijing and then continue with their “China is back from Covid!” messaging. The muted Chinese response hints at how much this caught them off-guard.
The idea, which I have seen floated in some quarters, that China did this intentionally seems nuts to me. Beijing has been endeavoring to cool down Sino-American tensions ever since the Biden-Xi meeting late last year. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, this seems like a classic case of bureaucratic politics in which some poor son-of-a-bitch didn’t get the word.
I’m willing to be persuaded that the Biden administration would have kept the whole thing under wraps if the weather balloon hadn’t been visible to civilians. That made any kind of hypocritical tolerance of the balloon impossible. We’ll see what the follow-up reporting reveals. For now, however, it seems that what made this different from past balloon incursions into U.S. airspace was the duration. That makes intuitive sense.
Dear God, everyone please shut the hell up about how this would never have happened under different presidents, because let’s be clear - the U.S. and China are spying the living hell out of each other. None of this has anything to do with who is president!
Finally, I hope the Biden administration takes Richard Haass’ advice on this incident and reschedules Blinken’s trip soon to capitalize on this incident. Haass is correct to note that, “Diplomacy and decisive action go hand in hand.” The attempt by everyone inside the Beltway to out-hawk each other on China overlooks the need to maintain some diplomatic ballast in the bilateral relationship. Consider this quote from Phelim Kine and Nahal Toosi’s Politico story:
“Beijing is hoping talks provide a timeout from bilateral friction that allows it to focus on domestic issues; the U.S. wants China to agree to guardrails that allow relations to remain abrasive without getting too hot,” said Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center. “Those goals are probably irreconcilable.”
Call me crazy, but those goals seem pretty reconcilable to me! Both countries view the relationship as fundamentally competitive, but neither side wants bilateral frictions to grow so heated that they swamp everything else. That seems like an opportunity for constructive bargaining.
So, to sum up: China screwed up, I don’t think it was a Xi-level screw-up, and the United States should exploit the opportunity to stabilize the bilateral relationship further.
Here endeth the balloon discourse.