Foreign Policy

China Floats a Trial Balloon Over Montana

from The Wall Street Journal,

U.S. Shoots Down Suspected Chinese Spy Balloon, Recovery Under Way. China’s Foreign Ministry protests, saying U.S. overreacted and violated international norms

Somehow a weather balloon ended up near U.S. missile bases. Sure.

So the balloon heads over the Aleutians, strays over Canada, but China acknowledges the balloon only after the U.S. announces it has been discovered over Montana? This isn’t believable, and the patent dishonesty will add to the U.S. public’s growing mistrust of China. What other Chinese surveillance exercises haven’t we been told about? The Pentagon says there have been other “instances of this activity,” over the past several years, including in previous Administrations, but that this balloon loitered longer.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday postponed his visit to Beijing scheduled for next week after [the] suspicious Chinese balloon was spotted over Montana. Good decision. But the public deserves to know more about this episode, and one uncomfortable lesson is that the U.S. homeland is increasingly vulnerable. The Pentagon said Thursday night it had “detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon” over the U.S. F-22 fighter jets and other assets were sent to examine the balloon, and one question is why the U.S. didn’t shoot it out of the sky [then]. The Pentagon admits it’s been lurking in sovereign U.S. air space for “a couple of days,” notably near bases for U.S. nuclear missiles.

The military brass [initially] advised against shooting down the balloon, though the stated reason—risk of debris—seems manageable. No one doubts China would have shot down an American asset wandering over its bases. An Air Force F-22 Raptor jet fighter on Saturday downed the balloon with a single AIM-9X Sidewinder missile off the coast of South Carolina at 2:39 p.m. ET within U.S. territorial waters, officials said. The jet fighter was flying at 58,000 feet, below the balloon, which had been flying as high as 65,000 feet. U.S. Navy ships, as well as Coast Guard vessels, have begun the effort to recover the surveillance equipment the balloon was carrying, the Pentagon said. Defense officials said they didn’t know how long the recovery would take and what could be gleaned from the recovered equipment. The debris fell in relatively shallow water about 47 feet deep and was spread out over at least 7 miles, a senior military official said.

Beijing may also be testing what it can get away with, as it often does. Someone thought the intrusion was worth the effort and risk of discovery. Did war hawks in Beijing want to blow up Mr. Blinken’s visit? It’s also possible the balloon has some surveillance or probing benefit that hasn’t been disclosed. The trial balloon ought to pop U.S. illusions that China’s behavior is irrelevant to Americans at home, or that Beijing is merely contesting farflung Pacific islands in a supposed sphere of influence. Beijing’s ambitions are global, and the U.S. homeland is vulnerable.

The U.S. doesn’t want war with China, and it would be best for the countries to develop a modus vivendi to avoid it. But that won’t happen if China behaves with impunity. Lying about claims in the South China Sea; trashing its treaty with Hong Kong; cyber theft; unsafe aerial intercepts of foreign planes; using trade to bully countries over Taiwan—all of this is contributing to bipartisan suspicion against China in the U.S. The balloon will surely be fodder for the House’s new bipartisan select committee on competition with China. Postponing Mr. Blinken’s trip was important but easy. Now the Biden Administration will have to demonstrate to Chinese President Xi Jinping that he can’t violate U.S. sovereign territory without consequences.

More From The Wall Street Journal (subscription required):

More From The Wall Street Journal (subscription required):

365 Days Page
Comment ( 0 )