If the GOP and MAGA go Bananas over Every Chinese Spying Attempt, We’ll Fall into a Cold War with China even Faster than We are Now

Chinese spy balloon shot down after drifting across continental USThe GOP’s response was grossly exaggerated and hypocritical. Yes, the balloon was bad, but it did not nearly justify MAGA’s weeks of fear-mongering and alarmism.

We’re already sliding toward a cold war with China. Let’s not charge into it, though, by overreacting to every coming Chinese provocation. There will a lot of these sorts of incidents as Chinese power continues to grow. So we need to learn how to contain and manage them, not over-react every time they happen.

This essay is re-post of an essay I just published with Channel News Asia. I am in the US at the moment, and the hysteria over this on the news here was pretty startling. I am not sure how many Americans realize just how much spying, intelligence-gathering, hacking, satellite coverage, and so on the US government also does.

In fact, the US actually flew spy planes – the U2 – over the Soviet Union until 1960. So everyone should relax. This is the sort of thing great powers do to each other. It is the sort of thing the US would do and then deny if it got caught.

This doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. We should devote resources to detecting these balloons in the future, and ideally shoot them down before the reach US soil and cause a falling-debris problem.

That the Trump administration looked the other way on three past Chinese balloon overflights tells you all you need to know about the hypocrisy of Fox, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and so on. Biden has had a decent presidency, and the GOP is desperate to find something to tar him with for 2024 – this balloon, Hunter Biden, tech ‘shadow-banning,’ etc. Last week’s MAGA freak-out is about 2024, not national security.

After the jump is the essay in its original, pre-edited form:

For the last few days, Americans were transfixed by the weird spectacle of a Chinese surveillance balloon traversing the country. The balloon was only shot down after it drifted over the ocean, for fear of debris falling on people. It is unclear what intelligence China might have gleaned. There is concern that it identified US missile silos, but these are large, obvious targets the Chinese probably knew about already. The Defense Department also claimed to learn about Chinese intelligence-gathering by studying the balloon. In the end, it probably was not that important.

The Chinese claimed that it was a weather balloon which went astray. This is almost certainly a lie. The Chinese have sent other surveillance balloons toward the US in the past few years. And trying to spy on peer competitors is exactly the sort of thing rising superpowers do. So this event should not be too surprising, even if it is obviously unwelcome for the Americans. Hence, it need not lead to a Sino-American crisis unless we let it.

Great Powers Spy on Each Other

It should surprise no one that large, powerful countries engage in surveillance and even sabotage against other states. The United States has done this for decades against its various opponents, and sometimes even against partners and allies. The most curious part of this event, rather, was the balloon’s very public appearance over the US mainland. Even regular people with standard cameras with zoom lenses could see it. Unsurprisingly, this provoked a lot of popular comment and news coverage, which is very unusual in the world of spying and intelligence. One wonders if stirring up a national debate in the US was the Chinese purpose, because it was almost inevitable that the balloon would be seen.

The protracted nature of the event predictably provoked partisan political commentary about Chinese intentions. Donald Trump, running for president yet again, naturally weighed in to stir up controversy. Hawks framed the balloon as an incursion, and this very public incident will only harden the congealing anti-Chinese consensus in Washington, especially Congress. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken felt compelled to cancel his imminent visit to Beijing. There was little admission in the US media debate though that the US does this sort of thing too.

The most famous analogous incident is the American use of high-altitude, ‘U2’ spy planes over the Soviet Union during the early years of the Cold War. The Soviets even managed to shoot down a U2 and stage a show trial of its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, in 1960. Like China last week, the first American response was to claim that aircraft was on a weather operation. In 1962, Cuba shot down another U2 in the midst of the missile crisis. Similarly, the US routinely flies surveillance planes near the legal airspace limits of North Korea and China. One of those planes was struck by a Chinese fighter jet in 2001 and its crew captured. American intelligence-gathering against Iran is also aggressive.

A Containable Incident

This history should caution against over-reaction. As two large, wealthy, militarily powerful states with different ideologies, competition between the US and China is all but inevitable. Intelligence-gathering, spying, hacking, satellite coverage, and so on are part of this. These create friction points. Inevitably some spies and surveillance crews get caught, leading to awkward denials, exhibitions of wreckage, and prisoner swaps. These events are tense, creating genuine geopolitical risk, which is likely why they are memorialized in Hollywood’s regular stream of spy movies.

But critically, these altercations are also manageable. Across the forty-five years of the Cold War, intelligence-gathering never lead to an outbreak of conflict nor decisively tilted the military balance against the US or USSR. (This where spies movies, with their dramatic, world-altering stakes, frequently go wrong.) Both sides recognized that both were spying. While these created many ostensible breaches of international law, the Americans and Soviets were cautious in exploiting the resulting tension. The Soviets, for example, wisely returned Powers in time to the United States, and President John Kennedy rejected pressure from the US military to strike Cuba after the 1962 U2 shootdown.

Current US President Joe Biden should do the same. If he draws a sharp, public redline against China over this incident, he will eventually be shown up as a hypocrite because the US is almost certainly spying on China in inappropriate ways too. A redline would also back Biden into a corner where he would be committed to escalation if China does something like this again. That is a dangerous course given the commonality of spying. This is just something both sides must learn to live with if they are going to avoid – as they should – a superpower clash over something as trivial as a spy balloon.

Hold Off a Sino-US Cold War as Long as Possible

The US and China are sliding into a cold war. This is widely accepted in the scholarly community, and the US foreign policy community in Washington has turned sharply against China in the last few years. The harsh rule of President Xi Jinping, his crackdown on Hong Kong, bullying of China’s neighbors, and dissembling on covid have deeply alienated western elites.

But just because a cold war is likely does not mean we encourage it. We should try as best we can to prevent incidents like this balloon shootdown from worsening tensions. A Sino-US cold war, however inevitable, will still be a disaster we should try hard to avoid. China’s economic ability to sustain a global shadow conflict with the US is far greater than the Soviet Union’s. A twilight struggle with China could last decades and be hugely dangerous. So let’s not overreact to the balloon; instead, let’s learn to contain and manage these types of regular incidents.

Robert E Kelly
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University