China’s Trial Balloon - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
China’s Trial Balloon
Chinese spy balloon shot down by U.S. Air Force last Saturday (FOX 11 Los Angeles/YouTube)

As the Chinese spy balloon crisis deflates, a key question remains: Why did the PRC do it? The answer might be as simple as this: Because they could.

Maybe no one in Beijing believed that the Red Zeppelin would be allowed to overfly the entire United States. But then again, maybe they did. The Chinese intelligence community no doubt has a substantial personality profile on President Joe Biden, based on his self-admitted long association with President Xi Jinping. And Biden’s response to this crisis was true to form — risk averse, lacking in decisive leadership, yet claiming everything went according to plan. If any president was going to let this mess happen and still brag afterward, it would be Biden.

The takedown at the end — live on cable TV — folded into the administration’s “can do” narrative, but only after the damage was done. It was a case study on how to turn a potentially small-scale incident into a political headache. There was no transparency at the front end. The balloon first crossed into U.S. airspace over the Aleutian Islands on Jan. 28. The administration was well aware of this yet said and did nothing. Maybe officials were hoping it would just float away and no one would be the wiser. In fact, the only reason anyone knew about it was because days later private citizens spotted it over Montana. When asked whether the public had had a right to know about the balloon, the Pentagon responded dismissively, saying, “The public certainly has the ability to look up in the sky and see where the balloon is.”

There’s also the sheer impudence of it, of testing Biden’s resolve and finding it lacking.

White House crisis communications were substandard. The president said he gave the shootdown order on Wednesday, but he only mentioned it after the balloon was downed. If he knew days in advance that action was to be taken, why not say so sooner? Why not publicly engage China, telling them the balloon would be taken out unless they shared how to bring it down safely? After all, if Beijing puts those things up, it must have a way to get them back to earth. And by letting the political crisis simmer in the media, Biden’s ultimate action looked forced by circumstances rather than independent and decisive. There are a variety of communication strategies a more adroit team might have employed that would have taken control of the story, better informed the public, and put the United States in a more favorable diplomatic posture.

Perhaps Biden was slow to act because he did not want to disrupt the planned meeting between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his counterparts in Beijing. Ultimately the meeting was postponed, but the PRC claims that no such meeting was even planned in the first place. This demonstrates the depth of contempt the Chinese leaders have for us — as if Blinken’s previous bilateral meeting in Alaska hadn’t already proved that point.

So, we are still left with the question of why the PRC did it. Though there is a chance it could, a balloon overflight is unlikely to gain any intelligence greater than what can be viewed from satellites. Perhaps Beijing was testing the capabilities for an EMP attack. There’s also the sheer impudence of it, of testing Biden’s resolve and finding it lacking.

Regardless of the primary motive, collecting detailed intelligence on how the Biden administration responded to the crisis was in itself useful to the PRC. Chinese planners benefitted from watching how decisions were made, who made them, and why. Once the balloon imbroglio was underway, Beijing could harvest all the information on how it was handled — or mishandled — and thus create a road map to anticipating Biden administration responses to future emergencies. In-depth knowledge of the White House crisis decision-making process, communications, personalities, and networks could be more important than details on the locations of ground-based nuclear forces, information the Chinese surely already knew anyway.

Is the administration intellectually honest enough with itself to treat this as a setback and learn from it? Will the National Security Council staff prepare an objective “lessons learned” study that will detail the many points of failure within this incident? Will the U.S. Intelligence Community supply the president with a comprehensive analysis of what Beijing accomplished based on the best information collected in real time as the crisis unfolded?

Because you can bet that Chairman Xi’s agents are using every bit of information they gleaned from this episode to set up the next, potentially more serious crisis.

James S. Robbins is Dean of Academics at the Institute of World Politics and author of This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive.


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