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Why China’s balloon crisis could be a watershed moment in the new Cold War

The Chinese balloon saga threatens to be a watershed moment in the world’s dangerous new superpower rivalry: Americans saw a tangible symbol of Beijing’s national security challenge for the first time.

The craft, described as a surveillance balloon by US intelligence, posed a low-tech, modest security threat in comparison to the multi-layered espionage, economic, cyber, military, and geopolitical rivalry that is escalating every day.

However, as it floated through US skies before being shot down Saturday off the coast of the Carolinas, the balloon created a brief moment when the idea of a Chinese threat to the US homeland was not distant, theoretical, unknown, or years away. It also demonstrated how, in today’s polarised America, Washington’s first reaction to a threat is to point fingers rather than unite.
However, its mocking days-long sashay from Montana to the east coast sparked a media frenzy and a Washington uprising.

The White House struggled to explain why it hadn’t immediately burst the balloon as officials in South Carolina warned people not to take pot shots at the high-flying Chinese intruder with their rifles in a moment of geopolitical high stakes and high farce.

All of this put President Joe Biden in a vulnerable position as Republican critics pounced. The balloon could not be ignored, especially since Secretary of State Antony Blinken was about to leave for a trip to Beijing, which was quickly cancelled due to the political storm.

“We should not have allowed the People’s Republic of China to mock our airspace,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement Sunday.

While Beijing expressed unusual regret for the incursion of what it claimed was a weather monitoring airship, critics see it as the latest example of a brazen willingness to flex its power outside its region, to trample established rules between nations, and as further evidence of an aggressive attempt to expand its influence and intelligence operations around the world, which have targeted businesses, universities, and Chinese Americans as well as traditional telecommunications networks.

“The United States has made it abundantly clear that this is an unacceptable intrusion into American sovereignty,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg stated on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. While China has scores of spy satellites trained on the US, just as Washington does on its adversary, the apparent audacity of the balloon flight has infuriated Washington. This, in turn, threatens to unleash political, military, and diplomatic forces in both countries, which, while manageable in the short term, demonstrate how difficult it will be to prevent this growing rivalry from boiling over and causing war in one of the defining threats of the twenty-first century.

There was a small window between Chinese President Xi Jinping’s securing of a norm-breaking third term last year and the next US presidential election when cooler politics in Washington and Beijing could have facilitated an easing of diplomatic tensions until the balloon crossed into US airspace. That chance may have now been squandered.

Immediate questions for Vice President Biden
The crisis’ aftermath raises difficult questions for Biden and is an unwelcome distraction from a State of the Union address on Tuesday that is, in all but name, a reelection campaign launch.

Republicans quickly branded Biden as feckless, susceptible to Chinese intimidation, and slow to defend US territory. While such criticism is easy for those with a megaphone but no responsibility, the political turmoil will create a perilous environment for future US policymaking aimed at avoiding a conflict with China.

The US military must explain why the balloon was not shot down before crossing the continental US, and the incident risks inflaming tensions between the Pentagon and an under-fire White House over how the incident was handled, as well as debate over what to do next time.

The balloon’s ignominious demise, caused by a missile fired by a US jet, also plays into China’s volatile politics. It is a new source of embarrassment for Xi, whose ascension to a third term has been overshadowed by a botched response to the Covid-19 pandemic, unprecedented anti-lockdown protests, and now a major crisis with the US. It begs the question of whether the flight was intended to provoke the US or was an accident. Or were hawkish Chinese armed forces attempting to embarrass the top leadership or derail efforts to cool relations with the US ahead of Blinken’s visit?

The episode serves as a reminder that, while the ruling Chinese Communist Party is ruthless and repressive, high-stakes power politics in Beijing are just as dangerous as they are in Washington. The fraught politics of US-China relations, as in the US, can lead to decisions that cause escalation.

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