Discover more from Letters from an American
February 4, 2023
Today, about 6 miles off the South Carolina coast, a pilot flying a U.S. Air Force F-22 fighter jet fired a missile to shoot down what appears to have been a Chinese spy balloon that has flown above the U.S. for the last four days. Such intelligence balloons are not unusual—there were at least three during the Trump administration and one before in the Biden administration, but they were not visible to the public—and U.S. defense officials are accustomed to dealing with them. They “took immediate steps to protect against the balloon’s collection of sensitive information, mitigating its intelligence value.”
Biden proposed shooting it down on Wednesday, but the equipment on it weighed more than 1,000 pounds and was the size of three buses, and bringing it down over the continent risked dropping debris on the people below the balloon’s path. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said, “After careful analysis, U.S. military commanders had determined downing the balloon while over land posed an undue risk to people across a wide area, due to the size and altitude of the balloon and its surveillance payload.”
Defense officials believe the U.S. Navy can recover the equipment from the shallow waters—the depth is only about 47 feet—where it fell.
It seems logical that assessing what information the balloon was trying to gather would tell our intelligence services a great deal about what the Chinese feel unable to gather in less visible ways. This afternoon, senior defense officials seemed to confirm that observation. CNN national security reporter Natasha Bertrand wrote that such officials told reporters: “The surveillance balloon's overflight of US territory was of intelligence value to us... we were able to study and scrutinize the balloon and its equipment, which has been valuable.”
Republicans have used the balloon fiasco to score political points, flooding media with statements about Chinese spying on the U.S. and complaints that no one would have tried such a thing under former president Trump. On Thursday, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) said, “Biden should shoot down the Chinese spy balloon immediately…. President Trump would have never tolerated this. President Trump would have never tolerated many things happening to America.” (In fact, Trump tolerated at least three similar events, and as a member of the Homeland Security Committee, Greene should know this.) Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) complained that “[t]he administration failed to protect our border and now has failed to protect our skies.”
It’s Saturday night, so I will be a bit snarky: they need to get a grip. A key aspect of any country’s national security is spying, and of course China and the U.S. are spying on each other. Shooting the balloon down as soon as it was spotted would have endangered Americans and made learning anything from it more difficult.
That being said, it’s not at all clear to me what this balloon was designed to accomplish politically. Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled his planned visit to Beijing over it, giving the U.S. a reason to back out of a visit that certainly seemed likely to bolster President Xi Jinping’s government. Scholar of international relations Daniel Drezner notes in his Drezner’s World it appears to have been a screw-up at a level below that of President Xi. China has been trying to cool tensions with America, not heat them up.
That being said, the visible spy balloon predictably sparked Republican attacks on President Biden, so the incident has the potential to weaken the administration’s strong steps to counter the growing power of China.
Biden and Blinken have worked to build Indo-Pacific cooperation that balances the power of China in the region, reinforced U.S. support for Taiwan, established export controls on technology that have hamstrung the Chinese semiconductor industry, and enhanced security cooperation with South Korea and Japan. But the media attention to the balloon has offered Biden’s opponents an opportunity to say he is not countering China strongly enough.