The Star Tribune on how the spy balloon is further deflating U.s.-china relations:
According to recent reports, the three most recent objects shot down by the U.S. were not spy craft. Still, some element of mystery remains. That is unlike the certitude expressed by the Biden administration about the origin and intent of the initial craft captivating the world’s attention: a Chinese spy balloon that drifted over portions of Alaska, Canada and the continental U.S. before a fighter jet downed it off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4.
And it’s no mystery what the impact has been on the world’s most important bilateral relationship as a result of China’s incitement: a further dangerous deterioration in U.s.-china relations.
“The trajectory for the last six years has been downward,” Anna Ashton, an expert on Sino-american relations for the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, told an editorial writer. Nowadays, she said, the relationship is “definitely at a low point.”
The Biden administration declined to characterize the status of ties between Beijing and Washington, but didn’t mince words on the spy balloon.
“China acted irresponsibly by violating our sovereignty,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters at a briefing last Thursday. “China’s irresponsible actions were visible to us but also the world, and China as a result has a lot to answer for. (It is) presumably getting questions from countries around the world about the nature of this program, about previous violations of sovereignty of some 40 countries across five continents.”
Price was referencing an undisclosed list of nations that the State Department claims have had similar incursions by Chinese spy balloons. It’s something Beijing denies as it concurrently accuses the U.S. of flying 10 balloons over its airspace last year, a charge quickly and completely rejected by the Pentagon.
To be clear: Both nations surveil each other, usually using high-tech satellites and human intelligence on the ground. The spy balloon is considered different, however.
“It’s not because it’s so out of the ordinary to discover that a major competitor, another world power, might be spying on you,” said Ashton. “Everyone expects that and that in many regards was well known.” Yet this incident “was so public and interfered with U.S. domestic politics.”
And unlike most matters in U.S. domestic politics, the subject of China unites Americans. There’s wide bipartisan revulsion on the balloon incident specifically and a shared determination to check China’s rise in general.
President Joe Biden “owes the American people an explanation, direct and on camera” about these incidents and the plan to protect U.S. airspace, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-ark., rightly said. The administration tried to answer some of those questions Monday, explaining that the three most recently discovered crafts were shot down quickly in part because they flew at much lower altitudes than the spy balloon, potentially endangering civilian aircraft. And since the spy balloon incident the U.S. military has adjusted its radar capabilities to detect more objects (including, at times, flocks of birds). The administration also announced a multiagency task force to study airborne objects and their potential safety and security risks.
Biden does need to be more transparent with not only lawmakers but the American people. And in doing so he also needs to be upfront about the stakes of the bilateral relationship. The president tried to improve it in a November meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at the G-20 Summit in Indonesia, in which Biden tried to put a “floor” on the relationship.
That floor is already being tested and may not hold if any of the three additional craft are tied to China. But ongoing diplomacy is essential, despite or indeed because of the current crisis. Already it’s resulted in Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceling a trip to Beijing to meet with his Chinese counterpart, and in Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s call to his Chinese counterpart being refused because, in Beijing’s view, the U.S. “had not created the proper atmosphere.”
The proper atmosphere over the U.S. should not contain spy balloons or other uninvited craft.
And the proper atmosphere for diplomacy is compromised by Chinese provocations followed by defiant denial.
But Biden, and America, must keep trying.