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A Trial Balloon?
Escalating tensions with China
Ok folks, please pull out your International Crisis Bingo Cards. Does anyone have a giant Chinese balloon over Montana?
The news that broke yesterday and escalated today of a mysterious balloon looming over the American heartland in a place that just happens to house a lot of ballistic missile silos has now become a diplomatic crisis.
The lead paragraph in the latest New York Times article on the subject captures a situation that seems both surreal and ominous.
“Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Friday postponed a trip to Beijing after a Chinese high-altitude balloon, described as an 'intelligence-gathering' airship by the Pentagon and a stray civilian device by China, was detected floating over the United States this week.”
A high-profile diplomatic meeting between two powerful nations with rising tension postponed. A balloon. A drastically different explanation of what might be going on from each side. It’s a sentence that even an AI bot would shrink from writing because it seems so outlandish. But it is true. And it is where we are today.
First of all, there is a lot we don’t know. What really is this massive balloon? How much intelligence does the Pentagon have about what is going on? If they know a lot, how do they know it? Or are they largely in the dark? The Chinese story strains credulity (or one could use more colorful language). What were they trying to accomplish? They had to know this would be detected. Was it meant to be provocative?
And then there’s always this: What questions do we not even know enough to ask?
As this story develops, we might get more answers. But it is important to put it into a larger context. The relationship between China and the United States has been deteriorating for some time now. Xi Jinping, the president of China, has proven to be a bellicose autocrat who has tightened his grip on power. In the crosshairs, quite literally, is the island of Taiwan, where the prospects of war with China seem higher than they’ve been in a long while.
Throughout the news, one can see the ripple effects of U.S.-China tension. There is the recent move by the United States to secure more military bases in the Philippines. The BBC noted: “With the deal, Washington has stitched the gap in the arc of US alliances stretching from South Korea and Japan in the north to Australia in the south.”
The New York Times reported in depth under the headline: “China and the U.S. Are Wooing Indonesia, and Beijing Has the Edge."
There is this headline from Reuters: “CIA chief warns against underestimating Xi's ambitions toward Taiwan.”
This headline from The Guardian: “Japan approves biggest military buildup since second world war amid China fears.”
And this headline on the economic side from The New York Times: “Why Chinese Companies Are Investing Billions in Mexico.”
Wherever you look, there are stories about China.
Even as the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues to rage, even as there are renewed tensions in Israel and the Middle East, even as there are global economic concerns, it is clear that the China story is continuing to gain prominence in the press, in Washington, and in the minds of the American people.
To some extent it’s because the China story is many stories rolled up in one. It touches on Ukraine — what lessons is China taking toward its possible invasion of Taiwan? It certainly is wrapped up in questions of trade, supply lines, investment, and the global economy. It is central to the climate crisis, where the United States and China will have to find ways to work together for mitigation.
In short, China is central to many global concerns and challenges because of its growing status. And it is that growing status that is being manifested, under Xi, into more strident nationalistic ambitions. There has long been awareness in Washington that China would be an economic competitor as well as an important market for American goods.
While military tensions over Taiwan were always part of the equation, there was a sense in the past that perhaps the days of naked territorial ambition had faded in favor of a battleground for economic dominance. Putin and Xi defy that hope. Are they throwbacks to the bloody wars of the 20th century or a harbinger of a terrifying future?
Or, in the long sweep of history, are they destined to be seen as something less dangerous to world peace? Hard to imagine that at the moment, but history is full of surprises, good and bad.
A full-scale war over Taiwan would be almost assuredly a bloody hell with extreme loss of life. It would create difficult questions for the United States and our allies about how much to be involved in a conflict that could easily spiral into a third world war. We should hope that no one wants that, but that might not prove to be enough of a deterrence. That explains the diplomatic, military, and economic chess game being played in the Pacific and beyond here in the first quarter of the 21st century.
Was this balloon an opening gambit to greater conflict? Or will it cause both sides to peer into the void and seek deescalation? Those are but two of the many questions for which we have no answers. Curiously, the Defense Department is stonewalling most questions and giving short, weak answers to a few others, citing “security” as the reason. This raises questions as to whether they know a lot about the huge intelligence balloon or they are puzzled or stumped and, like the rest of us, don’t really know what the hell the thing is or why it’s here.
Answers will come eventually. Let us pray that they lead us on a path of peace, albeit a peace through strength if necessary.
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