Sen. Marco Rubio told ABC News This Week, “They understood that it [the balloon] was going to be spotted, they knew the U.S. government would have to reveal it, that people were gonna see it over the sky. And the message they were trying to send is what they believe internally, and that is that the United States is a once-great superpower that’s hollowed out, it’s in decline.” I’m not sure I fully agree with Rubio. I think Beijing, and President Xi, know that America isn’t hollowed out, or in decline. However, they are doing this with a purpose, whether they believed the balloon would be noticed and become a huge story or not. They wanted to see what they could get away with.
The Great China Balloon Threat raised an issue that’s dogged my mind for years, and has caused unending confusion in conservative circles.
But first, a review of the past five days. What’s generally considered a spy balloon was floating over North America for about a week. The size of three Greyhound buses, it likely had some form of propulsion system and complex navigation capability. NORAD knew it was there, and determined it was not a threat, though it did offer China some small increment of intelligence over their other assets like low Earth orbit spy satellites.
When the balloon’s existence went public (it was large, and hovering at 60,000 feet over Montana, it was going to be seen), the Biden administration proved impotent and mostly deaf to the national mood. The White House was listening to the echo chamber of late-night hosts and SNL spoofs. So, the balloon was either a serious, purposeful incursion into America’s front yard, or it’s an innocent accident of weather. I tend to believe the former over the latter, since the latter is such a really good excuse. The ruling regime in China is very, very good at coming up with really good, plausible excuses.
The Washington Times conducted an unscientific poll on what the U.S. response should be to the balloon. Out of 969 respondents, 92% chose “shoot it down.” That would seem to be the pulse of most Americans. Indeed, around the world, China is one of the least trusted nations, and since the COVID-19 pandemic, this has only worsened, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center report.
To most of the world, China is not a good example of a nation acting in good faith. From patent infringement, to ignoring intellectual property rights, to strong-arming western multinational corporations into toeing its political line, to attempted genocide against minority groups, to spying, Americans have good reasons to distrust China, no matter how plausible their excuses for the Coronavirus origin, or the balloon over U.S. territory.
President Biden finally got the military to shoot down the balloon on Saturday, then praised the F-22 pilot, who took out a 90-foot slow-moving target with an advanced AIM-9X Sidewinder.
The White House claimed Biden ordered the shoot-down on Wednesday, but the military believed the risk of collateral damage by falling debris to be too great and preferred to do the deed over water. Perhaps, but the plains of Montana are pretty wide and fairly empty. I could come up with another reason that flies just as true: U.S intelligence didn’t want anyone poking around the wreckage, and a sea recovery is much easier to control. But that would mean there’s probably more to that balloon wreckage than it appears, making its overflight even more fraught.
This event has bubbled up a long-stewing bone I’ve been picking with conservatives. That is the question: “who is America’s enemy?”
Before World War II, this was a real conundrum. In World War I, America sided with the Western Allies over the Central Powers, but in that war, the distinction between the Tsars, the Huns, the Tommies, the Poilus, and the bloody Turks was quite murky to most Americans who weren’t recent immigrants from those places. That these empires, run by intermarried bloodlines and stale monarchies, were killing each other was of little interest to many isolationist conservatives.
President Wilson entered the war opposing Germany only due to the rising death toll and merchant ship losses due to their unrestricted use of submarine warfare, but that itself wasn’t enough to convince the public. Wilson’s propaganda regime used the red-herring (and never seriously considered) German plan to have Mexico join the war against the U.S. as just the spark needed to ignite anti-German sentiment.
Our government “made” Germany our enemy in WWI, and doing so had the unfortunate and unforeseen effect of causing WWII. In that war, Japan and Germany were clearly our enemies, the former by sneak-attack on our naval forces at Pearl Harbor, and the latter by declaring war on us days later. We cooperated, to the tune of thousands of trucks, aircraft and supply shipments, with the Soviet Union, which had acted with bad faith throughout the war. By the end of the war, communism, in the personage of the Soviets, and later the People’s Republic of China, had become the common enemy of America and the west.
With the demise of the Soviet Union, that enemy deflated like China’s balloon and came crashing down. We thought a new Russia, founded on the will of the people, and the promise of capitalism and innovation, would rise, and that China, already a rising player in world influence, would follow suit. Instead, Russia relapsed into an autocratic kleptocracy, while China evolved into a corporatist fusion of communism and fascism, mostly because that was the best expression what those cultures could produce, politically.
But China has an advantage Russia never had, and simply never became the “red scare” enemy that the Soviet Union occupied in conservative (and even classical liberal) thought. China is simply world-class at making things, and when done under the quality and technical scrutiny of western corporations, making things very well. America’s top three trade partners are Canada, Mexico, and China, though the order depends on when the numbers are measured. The U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Industry and Security wrote in its 2021 report on trade with China:
In 2021, U.S. exports to China were $151.1 billion, a 21.4% ($26.6 billion) increase from 2020; the U.S. imports from China were $506.4 billion, a 16.5% ($71.6 billion) increase; and the trade deficit with China was $355.3 billion, a 14.5% ($45.0 billion) increase.
Putting that in perspective, America’s trade deficit with China roughly equals the entire utilities sector of the U.S. economy, or 14% of all manufacturing, 25% of all retail trade, or 39% of all arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation and food services. That’s a huge chunk of our economy, and we do feel it. President Trump’s trade war and tariffs on Chinese goods did little to slow down the imbalance, and continued by the Biden administration, has continued to be ineffective, as China levies similar tariffs on our own exports.
Any action we take against China economically harms us, which limits the ability of our government to whip up anti-PRC sentiment among the public. We don’t trust China, but we can’t bring ourselves to declare them the kind of enemy status we bestowed on the Soviet Union.
I suppose Taiwan might be sort of flashpoint the public needs, but among issues Americans take seriously, it’s not on top of the list. A 2022 Pew Research study has 78% of respondents calling tensions between China and Taiwan a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem for the U.S. But breaking those numbers down, only 35% think it’s a “very serious” problem, which puts it behind “partnership between China and Russia,” “China’s involvement with U.S. politics,” “China’s military power,” its policies on human rights and our economic competition with China. It proves we don’t trust Beijing, which most of us already acknowledge.
However, to go from “rival” and “competitor” to “enemy,” there has to be something else, a spark. The balloon has that capacity of being the equivalent of President Wilson’s use of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, which highlighted the fact that Kaiser Wilhelm was willing to go to any lengths to win his war against England and France. I know it’s not a perfect analogy, but we know that China has tried to use companies like Huawei to provide back-doors into 5G technology the Beijing government could exploit (not that Americans haven’t done similar things). We know that China exploits data from millions of Americans who use TikTok. We know that China won’t stop at electronic spying—it has sent balloons on “a handful of occasions” including when Trump was in office, Forbes reported.
The Soviet Union threatened Western Europe with military conquest. It never, until its demise, relinquished the land occupied during WWII. Russia still commands South Sakhalin Island, granted to Stalin at Yalta in exchange for breaking its neutrality pact with Japan in the closing days of WWII. Sakhalin has swapped between Russia and Japan several times in its history, and now Japan is re-arming rapidly against the rising military threat China presents. Japan is still America’s ally, but not in the way NATO cemented western Europe and Turkey against the Soviet Union.
China is friend and protector to a nuclear-armed Kim Jong-Un, the demented dictator of the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea. China trades with Russia, spars with India, and exerts tremendous economic and maritime influence (through its command of shipping) with all nations in the South Pacific and the Pacific rim. Though it cannot (yet) hope to prevent U.S. “freedom of navigation” exercises in the Taiwan Strait without unacceptable consequences, Beijing’s ambition is to do as it pleases in its geographic sphere of influence, and beyond.
If China does attack Taiwan in a war of conquest, will America summon the will to declare Beijing our actual enemy? Biden’s policy hints at a commitment, but the public will to execute it seems shaky at best. However, the outrage of China’s incursion into our airspace, above our ICBM silos, and the homes of tens of millions of Americans, seems to be something that a more charismatic president (or a more organized one, as President Wilson was not a naturally engaging speaker) would use to build a narrative.
Perhaps Biden’s narrative isn’t that China is our enemy, and that’s fair. However, should conservatives believe, by our own commitment to what we consider America’s role and ideals in the world, that China is indeed our enemy? If so, where’s the narrative? Where’s the spark? Trump says China is our enemy, but practically in the same breath, he discredits himself, making anyone who tries to make a serious narrative’s job so much harder. I’d rather have Trump raging nonsense than being right, because when he’s right, serious people have to prove they’re not merely agreeing with him.
I believe that conservatives must recognize and accept, or repudiate the idea, that the People’s Republic of China is our enemy, by its actions, ambitions and the guiding principles upon which it organizes its government and society. They have not declared war on us (why would they do so to their largest source of cash?) but they have acted to steal everything they possibly can, and use every advantage they can manufacture, to make themselves ascendant and America less so. Isn’t that how an enemy acts? If so, how do we respond?
Now that the balloon is out of the bag, China does have some measure of embarrassment, but they are no stranger to that kind of crisis. If they get away with it, with only the loss of the balloon itself, and U.S. intelligence getting whatever small tidbits from possessing its remains, then they’ll use that in their next calculus. They’ll count on the fact that the U.S. forgets things in about two weeks when the story fades and the news moves on.
The Biden administration, if it believed this was an issue worth using to move the public to agree on an enemy, wasted the opportunity. In that, perhaps Rubio had a point. In another sense, conservatives should decide whether it’s worth agreeing—and that means agreeing with Trump—that China is our enemy. I say we should.
Follow Steve on Twitter @stevengberman.
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