February 5, 2023
Home & Away is normally released every Friday, but these are hardly normal times. I decided to produce this special edition of the newsletter to address events of the past few days. I expect I will want to do this from time to time, which I guess makes this edition something of a trial balloon.
Which brings us to the subject of the Chinese balloon. There has been a great deal of chatter about whether the balloon should have been shot down sooner than it was; more on this below. But largely missing from the conversation has been an attempt to understand why what took place took place.
First things first. What seems intentional, despite China’s strident denials, was its decision to send a surveillance balloon over the United States and in particular over areas of military importance. What I would argue was unintentional was triggering a crisis between the United States and China.
Why? Because ever since Presidents Xi and Biden met at the G-20 late last year, China has been taking steps to improve or at least set a floor under a relationship that had been deteriorating for years. Xi and China have their hands full with Covid and sluggish economic growth. The meeting between Xi and Blinken, the first with a secretary of state in 6 years, was all set. If China wanted to scuttle the Blinken trip for domestic political reasons, something that resonates at home, i.e., Taiwan, would have been far more likely.
What is more, this was hardly the first time China has sent surveillance balloons this way. According to the Biden administration, China did so three times during the Trump presidency and once earlier in this one. None of those triggered a crisis, which makes it not unreasonable for whoever authorized this flight at this moment to assume it did not represent a major risk.
All that said, we are where we are. What now? The problem at the heart of U.S.-China relations is not balloons or even surveillance of any sort as we obviously do a lot of it as well. What is most critical from our perspective is limiting China’s direct and indirect support for Russia at a time when what it is doing in Ukraine poses the greatest near-term threat to order…and setting some guardrails around managing differences over Taiwan, which remains by far the likeliest issue that could spark a direct conflict between the world’s two largest economies.
That’s why we should want the secretary of state to go to China, to address such issues candidly and directly with the only person in China who decides its policy in these critical areas. Diplomacy is not a favor we bestow on China but a tool of national security to be deployed when it can advance U.S. interests. Now is such a time.
Quite a few politicians and observers are criticizing President Biden for not moving more quickly to shoot down the balloon. It seems to me, though, that he was right to delay doing so until it was clear debris would scatter over water. In addition, reports suggest the U.S. was able to limit the balloon’s ability to collect intelligence at the same time we managed to glean a few useful things about the balloon. All of which is to say the delay does not appear to have cost us significantly.
More important, it is not the worst thing to take some time in a crisis. One lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis is that slowing the pace of events can help. It allows for more considered vetting of options. It also allows for communication between the sides. Slowing a crisis enables the other party to think through what it might do rather than rush to recklessness. And time can pave the way to de-escalation, something that could prove relevant here in the days and weeks ahead.
Republican criticisms of the president that I have seen, many of which take him to task for not acting sooner, are thus unpersuasive. It seems to be more an effort to extract political advantage from what is in fact something less than a full-fledged crisis. Of more concern is that this criticism will make it more difficult for the Biden administration to act sensibly toward China lest it fear political attacks. The competition between the parties over who can be tougher toward China is an unhealthy one.
The adage that politics stop at the water’s edge, of putting country before party or politics, increasingly seems of a bygone era. Which is too bad for us all.
More on Friday.