Red Zeppelin

How China’s spy balloon blew up relations with the U.S.

A photo of U.S. and Chinese flags staged for a diplomatic meeting
Ng Han Guan / AFP / Getty

The extent of Chinese spying efforts revealed by the surveillance balloon caught hovering in U.S. airspace hardly comes as a huge surprise. This, after all, is what big powers do to one another. But the depth of acrimony over the balloon is telling—a register of how fraught relations between the U.S. and China had already become. Worse, it suggests that the two powers are close to a point where further confrontation becomes inevitable.

That is all the more unfortunate because the relationship seemed to have been moving in a more positive direction. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was to have had an opportunity to alleviate tensions with China during a visit to Beijing earlier this week. Instead, the Biden administration postponed Blinken’s trip after identifying the balloon, which it asserts was spying on the U.S. “It’s a violation of our sovereignty. It’s a violation of international law,” Blinken said. Beijing countered with a claim that the airship was no more than a wayward civilian weather balloon.

After the U.S. subsequently shot the balloon down off the coast of South Carolina, the Chinese foreign ministry denounced Washington for the move, calling it a “clear overreaction” and reserving the right to retaliate. The truth will be known soon enough, assuming that American Navy divers succeed in fishing enough of the downed device from the Atlantic to reveal its full purpose—a disclosure that will likely not be in China’s favor.

In theory, both governments could have minimized the damage caused by the controversy. This isn’t the first time the Chinese have sent surveillance balloons into American airspace, and perhaps Blinken could have gone to Beijing with a formal protest yet maintained a dialogue. Beijing, caught red-handed, could have come clean, or at least shown greater contrition. In the past, the two sides were more willing to tolerate each other’s perceived transgressions in the cause of harmony, or to negotiate their way through a dispute—as they did after the misdirected aerial bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during NATO operations in 1999.

The political environment in both capitals today makes that far more difficult. The China threat has come to dominate American foreign and security policy, and no U.S. politician can risk appearing soft. In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Joe Biden used his action against the balloon as evidence of American resolve to stand up to Chinese aggression.

“Make no mistake,” he said, “if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did.” The Republicans, who oppose Biden on practically everything else, agree with him on China. When they took control of the House of Representatives in the new session of Congress after November’s election, they created a select committee focused on the challenge from China. On Thursday, they joined Democrats to pass a resolution in the House condemning China over the spy balloon.

The atmosphere is much the same in Beijing. Anti-Americanism is now at the core of Chinese foreign and security policy. If anything, the balloon and Beijing’s response to the affair show that China’s recent, friendlier overtures were more style than substance. The Blinken visit was meant to advance a thaw in U.S.-China relations that began with a forthright meeting between Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in November. That appeared part of a wider campaign by Beijing to repair ties with other countries strained by China’s more assertive diplomacy. Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, also visited Beijing in December after several years of attenuated diplomatic contact because of Chinese antipathy.

The balloon, however, is a reminder that Beijing has not altered its fundamental hostility to the West and its partners. The most obvious evidence is Xi’s continued commitment to his partnership with Russian President Vladimir Putin, reaffirmed in a December conversation. The Pentagon’s latest assessment of Chinese military capabilities, released in November, noted that Beijing persists in expanding its nuclear arsenal. China’s newly installed foreign minister, Qin Gang, is still promoting Beijing’s Global Security Initiative, its blueprint for an alternative world order. In a speech just this week, Xi reiterated his rejection of “Westernization” and held up China’s system as a model for global development.

The balloon fallout is thus a sign of how fractured the world is becoming, and how challenging putting it back together will be. Although many countries will try to avoid taking a side in the U.S.-China competition, most of the world’s major powers are hardening their positions. The German government, long uncomfortable with Washington’s hard-line stance toward Beijing, is in the process of rethinking its relationship with China, with an eye on better protecting Germany’s interests and reducing the country’s reliance on trade with the Asian giant. Japan and the Netherlands look set to join the U.S. in restricting the access of Chinese companies to advanced microchip-making equipment.

The balloon controversy may only accelerate the split. U.S. officials are briefing diplomats from dozens of countries on what they believe is an extensive Chinese balloon-surveillance program, and they are releasing intelligence to back up their claim. This expanding campaign by the Biden administration hits China where it hurts. A pillar of Beijing’s anti-American message is that it is a champion of national sovereignty compared with a meddlesome Washington. By exposing how widespread Beijing’s airborne intrusions are, the White House is also calling out China as a serial violator of that vaunted principle.

The balloon incident may prove merely a blip on the radar. Officially, the Blinken mission has only been postponed, leaving the door open for a resumption of talks. But Beijing’s interest in dialogue appears to be waning. Washington attempted to arrange a conversation over the balloon between the two countries’ top defense officials, but the Chinese rebuffed that offer.

That doesn’t bode well. The balloon business is not of the order that could lead directly to war. But the risk of further, more serious crises is elevated. A new type of Cuban-missile-crisis moment, when the fate of the world hangs in the balance, is not inconceivable. Then the two adversaries may find that the channels of communication they’d need to avert disaster aren’t working, and their inimical attitudes are too entrenched to find a solution. The Chinese government is already getting hot and bothered over the possibility that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is planning to visit Taiwan.

The spy balloon incident will blow over. The danger it points to will not.