February 8, 2023
At a press conference today, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters that U.S. intelligence has determined that the spy balloon was part of a larger Chinese surveillance program operating around the world. On Monday, the U.S. shared the information it gleaned from the wreckage of the balloon with around 150 people from about 40 embassies. China has launched “dozens” of such surveillance balloons since 2018. New information has made U.S. intelligence able to revisit previous objects that were classified as “unknown” and recognize them as part of this balloon program.
The news about the balloon illustrated the difference between the slow, hard work of governance and the easy hit of sound bites. From the beginning of his administration, President Joe Biden emphasized that he intended to focus on cybertechnology as a central element of national security. That focus meant that in May 2021, just four months after he took office, he issued an executive order on “improving the nation’s cybersecurity.”
According to National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, that focus meant that the U.S. “enhanced our surveillance of our territorial airspace, we enhanced our capacity to be able to detect things that the Trump administration was unable to detect.” The Chinese apparently sent at least three of these balloons into U.S. airspace when Trump was president, but we didn’t know it until the Biden administration tightened security. Sullivan said that the surveillance improvements enabled the U.S. to “go back and look at the historical patterns” and uncover “multiple instances” during the Trump administration when similar things had happened.
During the balloon saga, Republicans complained that Biden didn’t shoot the balloon down earlier than he did, but defense officials said that they were collecting intelligence from the device (of course they were!) and that they made certain the Chinese could not get information from it.
Republicans have insisted that the balloon shows Chinese disdain for the U.S., while President Joe Biden told reporters Monday that the balloon did not change the developing patterns between the U.S. and China. “We’ve made it clear to China what we’re going to do,” he said. “They understand our position. We’re not going to back off. We did the right thing. And there’s not a question of weakening or strengthening. It’s just the reality.”
For their part, Chinese authorities appear embarrassed by the exposure of the program and by the cancellation of Blinken’s planned visit. They downplayed the balloon as an “isolated incident,” and officials expressed “regrets that the airship strayed into the United States by mistake.”
Part of what Biden was referring to when he said China knew “what we’re going to do” is that on January 28, the Biden administration inked a deal with Japan and the Netherlands to limit exports of semiconductor technologies to China. The two countries have signed on to the U.S. sanctions the Biden administration put into place last October against exports of that technology from the U.S. to China. Last week, the U.S. stopped sales of essential components to Chinese technology giant Huawei.
This shutdown of technological innovation has upset Chinese authorities, concerned about what it will mean for Chinese industry. “We hope the relevant countries will do the right thing and work together to uphold the multilateral trade regime and safeguard the stability of the global industrial and supply chains,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said earlier this month. “This will also serve to protect their own long-term interests.”
Now, suddenly eager to confront the balloon, the Republican House has come up with 17 new bills to counter China.
Meanwhile, the recent report of the Australian Lowy Institute, which for the last five years has annually ranked the power of 26 Asian countries, assessed that China’s isolation because of Covid has set it back, permitting the U.S. to retain its position as the key player in Asia. But, the report said, the idea of a multipolar region, which is what the U.S. under Biden is backing, seems so distant as to be unattainable. Finally, it assesses that Russia “risks growing irrelevance.” The 2022 invasion of Ukraine has sapped Russia in dramatic ways.
Both the Senate and the House will receive classified briefings on the balloon and Chinese intelligence this week.
Last night, during President Biden’s State of the Union address, House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) complained by tweet that Biden hadn’t mentioned China in the first hour of his speech, suggesting that the president wasn’t taking the issue seriously enough. Today, when CNN’s Manu Raju asked McCarthy if he was okay with New York representative George Santos—the serial liar who is currently under threat of an ethics investigation over where his campaign money came from—attending that classified briefing, McCarthy said, “Yes.”
All this is to say that actual governance is about a lot more than reacting to a balloon.