How “Dangerous” Can a Chinese Weather Balloon Be?

A stream of Republican Congressmen took to television news and podcasts on Monday to lavish praise on the U.S. military for saving America, by shooting down a Chinese “spy satellite”. At the same time, they pounded on President Biden for not acting sooner to protect Americans from what one called “a hostile foreign intrusion”. The “spy ship”, which the Chinese described as an “airship for civilian use”, that is, a “weather balloon” carried over U.S. territory accidentally by strong winds, had first been reported on Feb. 1, and then shot down three days later.

Republicans reportedly are drafting a resolution condemning the President for not ordering the destruction of the balloon sooner. The head of their group in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, declared that Biden let China “make a mockery of U.S. air space”, while Marco Rubio, the lead Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said it was a “message” to the world sent by Beijing that they no longer see the U.S. as “a mega-power”, but as “a once-great superpower that’s hollowed out, it’s in decline”.

Missing in all this verbal onslaught is any confirmation that this was indeed a “spy balloon” (which the U.S. intelligence community is now supposed to prove from the debris captured in the Atlantic). This is certainly not the first time that a civilian weather balloon, captured by strong winds, has strayed off path. The hysteria whipped up must be seen in the context of a massive gear-up for war with China.

This context includes Air Force General Minihan’s memo telling those airmen under his command to prepare for war with China, which he said “his gut” tells him will occur by 2025; as well as the publication of a RAND Corporation report last month, Avoiding a Long War: U.S. Policy and the Trajectory of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict. The authors express skepticism that there will be a positive outcome for NATO in Ukraine, warning that continuing the escalation includes the risk of nuclear war. But they also conclude that a drawn-out struggle for Ukraine detracts from the preparation needed to contain China, asserting what many analysts have said, which is that the U.S. at present is not prepared for a two-front war — against Russia in Ukraine and China in the Indo-Pacific. RAND often previews the direction of future military policy.

The incident also provided a pretext for the postponement of Secretary of State Blinken’s trip to Beijing for a meeting with top Chinese officials, which was scheduled as part of an effort to reopen talks between the two nations. While Republican neocons are using this to attack Joe Biden, it fits the bipartisan war buildup policy, of defining both Russia and China as adversaries that must be contained through the creation of “Global NATO”.

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