Balloon Mind State

The balloon has become a brilliant political foil: Republicans painted Joe Biden as weak on China for not immediately blasting the thing out of the sky; when his administration did, it allowed Democrats to show their boss as cool and in control.
The balloon has become a brilliant political foil: Republicans painted Joe Biden as weak on China for not immediately blasting the thing out of the sky; when his administration did, it allowed Democrats to show their boss as cool and in control. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP
Julia Ioffe
February 7, 2023

About that balloon. On Saturday afternoon, an American F-22 jet shot a Sidewinder missile at a Chinese spy balloon to the patriotic cheers of the people on the ground in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It had enjoyed quite a trip, this balloon, first entering U.S. airspace on January 28 over some Alaskan islands, then flying into Canada, then down into the continental United States, which it traversed, unbothered, for five days. It would have likely been a quiet trip, too, if not for an amateur photographer in Billings, Montana, who spotted it flying overhead on Wednesday, February 1, which was also the day the balloon flew over one of America’s nuclear missile silos. 

The local photography buff raced to get his camera and used it to snap a photo that quickly went viral. “I had posted a couple of photos just to social media, just joking, like I thought I saw a UFO,” the photographer, Chase Doak, told the local news station. “It was just right here. I was literally just right here in the vicinity of my driveway.” 

Well, it seemed that Chase Doak and his camera forced the Biden administration to go public earlier than it wanted—if it wanted to at all. It also didn’t help that the Pentagon scrambled fighter jets to try to shoot the balloon down that afternoon while closing the civilian airport in Billings, only to determine that the debris radius—the undercarriage, the Pentagon later said, was the size of three buses—would be massive. Moreover, the Defense Department wondered, what if, in shooting at the balloon, it merely blew a hole in it, causing it to slowly drift down to the ground for hundreds of miles, landing god knows where? So the generals recommended against shooting at the thing while it was still over land and the jets were called back, but by this point the Chinese balloon was out of the proverbial bag, and held the entire nation in its thrall.

It was the perfect story for this nation of ours. Both parties now agree that China is a threat to U.S. interests and the balloon became a brilliant image and political foil. It allowed Republicans to paint Joe Biden as weak on China for not immediately blasting the thing out of the sky (though they would, I’m sure, have blasted him as reckless for any resulting damage on the ground). And when the Sidewinder did hit its target, shattering the spy balloon over the Carolina coast, it allowed Democrats to show their boss as cool and in control. 

For national security types in D.C., however, it was a deeply weird and somewhat frustrating event. “I really would like fewer news cycles about the balloon,” one Congressional aide who works on intelligence matters groaned. “It’s like this was a TV episode written by Hollywood,” added one former senior national security official. “It’s not the most significant intrusion by the Chinese. They got, like, 5 million Americans’ personal data when they hacked the Office of Personnel Management and they got the SF86’s of everyone who served in the Obama administration,” the official continued, referring to the form one has to fill out to get a security clearance. 

But that is harder to explain than a balloon, which needs no explanation at all. Indeed, it was a quick and digestible news nugget. It appeared, it floated by, and then it was shot down, all wrapped up in a neat bow in just three days. “It’s the length of a narrative arc that Americans can pay attention to,” the official said. “The Ukrainians are coming up on a year of fighting. That’s too long for Americans.” 

The balloon may be dead in the water but its legacy lives on, at least in the more academic corners of Washington that think eagerly and deeply about foreign policy and national security. First of all, there’s the wreckage that is still being collected off the coast of South Carolina. It will be analyzed by the various U.S. intelligence agencies to see what kind of spyware the Chinese government was using. That is in addition to the fair amount of information on Chinese methods that the intelligence community gathered, according to multiple sources, while the balloon transited U.S. airspace. To wit: it was not a weather balloon that drifted off course, but had propellers and steering mechanisms. In other words, it had the means to be directed where it needed to go.

The State Department, meanwhile, is busy briefing allies, telling them not just what the Biden administration did and why, but getting out its side of the story. Apparently, there are far more takers of the “stray weather balloon” explanation than you’d imagine around the globe, particularly in the global south and in places where China and Russia have influence. For many countries in the world, “They don’t like any tension between China and the U.S. because they worry that it will come to a breaking point and they will have to choose,” said the former senior national security official. So when the Chinese government puts out the very obvious lie that the spy balloon was an innocent weather balloon, “people hear what they want to hear.” 

But this hasn’t just been an issue in places like South America and Africa. “From the administration’s perspective, it’s a helpful way to illustrate that the Chinese threat isn’t just economic but it’s also a hard security threat,” said a former State Department official. “China is seen as an economic threat in Europe, but it’s been harder to get them to see the light. That’s the greatest area of divergence.” 

Five years ago, noted the official, Europeans didn’t see any threat from China. Part of the challenge was the messenger: It was the Trump administration, after all, that was banging the China drum, the same Trump administration that was constantly insulting and undermining historic American allies in Europe. Another part of it was the nature of Europe’s relationship with China. “With the exception of France, European countries don’t want to project power in the Indo-Pacific so they interact with China primarily in economic terms,” the former State Department official continued. “They were slow to realize that China was trying to project power outside the Indo-Pacific and that there’s a hard security element in things that were originally perceived as economic interests.” 

To be fair, Bonnie Glaser, a China specialist with the German Marshall Fund, reminded me that it also took Democrats a while to come around to the idea that China was a real threat to American interests, both economic and security, and not just Trump’s personal piñata. “There’s now a shared view of threat that didn’t exist [for Democrats] until early in the Biden administration,” Glaser told me. “Democrats didn’t agree during the Trump administration—until they came in and saw the intelligence gathered during the Trump administration.” 

Now it seems that the Biden administration has intelligence that the Trump administration hasn’t seen on Chinese spy balloons floating into U.S. airspace while Trump was president, and is offering former Trump officials intel briefings. (Many of them still have security clearances and showing them the proof so that they can stop publicly contradicting the Biden White House in public would be useful.) From my conversations with people familiar with the matter, it seems there had always been suspicions, even during the Trump years, that the unidentified objects belonged to Beijing, that definitive evidence didn’t emerge until after Trump had left the White House, and that those previous flyovers were brief. This latest five-day sally over the lower 48 was, in fact, a major escalation.

It has also been difficult, said the former State Department official, to explain to Western allies the idea of civil-military fusion, the concept that, for Beijing, there aren’t strict divisions between the economic and the military spheres. The line, just like for the Kremlin, is very deliberately blurred and each interest is usually in the service of the other. “It is very difficult to separate what is an economic activity and what is a military activity” for the Chinese government, added the former official. “We tend to bucket things, but everything is kind of dual-purpose for them.”

“Deep Freeze”

For other American allies—and even frenemies—particularly the ones who live closer to China’s borders, this is a far more familiar trend. “The countries that sought to have a better relationship with China often find that those efforts have been sabotaged by China’s gratuitous provocations that, in the grand scheme of things, don’t have bigger value,” said Vance Serchuk, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security, who comes from the world of the late Senator John McCain

Balloongate and its fallout fits that pattern. It’s hard to see what China got for its troubles that it couldn’t have gotten from its many low-orbit satellites. Instead, it got an international incident, a Congress up in arms, and Antony Blinken canceling a trip that Beijing was very much anticipating as part of a framework that Biden and Xi Jinping agreed on in November to bring down and regulate tensions between the two countries. “We’re probably heading into a deep freeze in the diplomatic context, which is not good when the rhetoric is amped up,” said the State Department veteran.

It’s not the first time China’s actions have been at cross purposes with its goals. Japan, India, and the Philippines all had governments that in the last decade or so tried rapprochement with China while holding the U.S. at arms’ length. Yet in response, China pushed into sensitive areas, directly confronting these countries’ perceived boundaries: Japan’s in the Senkaku Islands, the Philippines’ in the South China Sea, and India’s in the Himalayas. “The Chinese government keeps provoking territorial disputes with almost every one of their consequential neighbors,” Serchuk said. “They sometimes seem to operate according to a logic of their own, which sees attempts at de-escalation as weakness and an invitation to aggression.”

Why does Beijing do this? “The mindset is, these territories are rightfully ours, the world order is fundamentally unjust, we should be able to behave the way the Americans do, which includes a world surveillance state, and any pushback smacks of rank hypocrisy,” Serchuk explained. “They and Russia have this in common: a massive chip on their shoulder. It’s a combination of a deep sense of grievance and an equally deep sense of entitlement.”

Just as with the balloon, China has a record of sacrificing far bigger, more important goals for something far sillier, like a cabinet-level visit for a, well, balloon. In this case, Glaser believes, it is an act of internal miscommunication and external miscalculation. “The left hand doesn’t always talk to the right hand,” Glaser told me. “Civ-mil relations”—D.C. speak for relations between the military and the civilian branches of government— “aren’t very smooth in China. The military doesn’t always tell diplomats what it’s doing. I don’t think anyone was deliberately trying to sabotage the Blinken visit, but I do think the fact that no one has called out their balloons in the past may have led them to think they would get away with it this time, too.”

Serchuk has a slightly different read. “A lot of what they do is stupid, which is to say, counterproductive to their own interests,” he said. “Japan is remilitarizing, you got Aukus, the Quad, the India-U.S. partnership. But the Chinese response seems to be, we don’t care, we are getting more and more powerful, and, ultimately, we will prevail.”

So far, it’s hard to see how that’s true. Even the Chinese government seems to know that’s not the case, especially in the short term. The Chinese economy isn’t doing too well, the population is shrinking, and, instead of getting their relationship with the U.S. on a more steady footing, they’ve riled up the U.S. population and their politicians against them. “My guess is that Beijing drew this conclusion after Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and that they reaffirmed their conclusion now, that domestic politics in the U.S. plays a big role in U.S. policy toward China, that the conversation about China in the U.S. is so toxic and so negative that it shapes policy, that it’s not advantageous to them,” said Glaser. “And I think they’re right.”

What’s more, despite the lies about the spy balloon being a weather balloon, the Chinese government quickly expressed “regret” for sending it east to begin with. This is, as some have pointed out, an exceedingly rare turn of phrase for Beijing, usually reserved for neutral events like the deaths of former heads of state. In this case, it amounted to an admission of guilt and an apology, which is in part why both Washington and Beijing seem eager to limit the fallout radius of the fallen balloon. “The Chinese immediately took responsibility and apologized,” said the Congressional aide who works on intelligence matters. “That’s about as low-conflict as it gets on the intelligence front.”