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China’s Surveillance Balloon Is Not a Test of Will

The response to the vessel in U.S. airspace shows how the next Cold War could be as overreactive as the first.

James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
A jet flies by the Chinese spy balloon as it floats off the coast of Surfside Beach, South Carolina, on Feb. 4.
A jet flies by the Chinese spy balloon as it floats off the coast of Surfside Beach, South Carolina, on Feb. 4.
A jet flies by the Chinese spy balloon as it floats off the coast of Surfside Beach, South Carolina, on Feb. 4. Randall Hill/Reuters

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: Beijing’s surveillance balloon reveals the fragility of the U.S.-China relationship, U.S. President Joe Biden emphasizes competition with China in his annual State of the Union speech, and a scandal-ridden coffee chain booms again in China.

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What the Spy Balloon Reveals About U.S.-China Relations

When U.S. aircraft shot down a high-altitude Chinese balloon last Saturday off the coast of South Carolina, they recovered a potential intelligence haul. It seems that China has been experimenting with a surveillance balloon network for several years, including brief intrusions into foreign airspace, including that of Taiwan and the United States.

China maintains that the balloon was a meteorological device that went off course—a dubious claim, given the size of the vessel. However, it’s still likely that the balloon’s course was a mistake, not a deliberate provocation. It’s hard to see what China would gain from the move, especially given the ongoing attempt to rebuild U.S.-China relations, however fragile. (One could imagine a scenario in which a hawkish faction in Beijing may have sought to sabotage U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s now-postponed diplomatic trip to China, though.)

Furthermore, past incursions into foreign airspace by Chinese balloons have been relatively short, not an eight-day jaunt visible to thousands of people on the ground that ended with the United States taking possession of the balloon’s payload. The extreme cold weather in north Asia late last month could have disrupted the balloon’s course. It’s also possible that Beijing simply lost control of the vessel.

None of this stopped a “hullaballoon” from breaking out among U.S. pundits over the incident. Some media coverage even raised the possibility of a “balloon gap,” but that assumes there must be a cunning motivation behind the surveillance. Because the Chinese military is particularly opaque, its mistakes are less obvious. But corruption pervades the military procurement system. The surveillance balloon may be a useful, cost-efficient tool; it may also be an expensive boondoggle.

Pundits and politicians in Washington tend to read Beijing’s actions as a test of will. From this perspective, anything China does probes the boundaries of the U.S. willingness to react; any reaction but the most extreme will convince U.S. opponents that it’s weak. Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, for example, blamed the Biden administration for not destroying the balloon sooner. This attitude transforms every minor provocation into a high-stakes conflict. As a result, the U.S. military’s sensible approach—to wait to shoot down the balloon since its surveillance threat had been neutralized—is seen as a sign of weakness.

This reaction follows another tendency among U.S. politicians: to use concerns about China as a weapon in domestic partisan fights. Much of the commentary about the surveillance balloon, especially from the U.S. right wing, was detached from reality. Republican politicians speculated that the balloon contained “bioweapons” and that U.S. President Joe Biden was “compromised” by China. Some Republican lawmakers posted images with guns promising to shoot down the balloon themselves.

All of this was, of course, counterproductive to sane policymaking. But it reflects something that happened throughout the Cold War, from Red Scares to the fear that UFOs were a secret Soviet military project. Then—as now—the panic was worsened by a lack of transparency, leading the United States to be convinced of an imaginary “missile gap.” Of course the Soviet threat was real, but paranoias did damage to U.S. policy at home and abroad.

Mutual surveillance is a reality that requires a measured reaction. The United States uses a variety of tools, from satellites to intercepted communications, to surveil China. It’s not unreasonable that China would attempt to do the same to the United States. That doesn’t make airspace violations acceptable. They pose a real risk: of being mistaken for something more dangerous. During the Cold War, serious tragedies resulted from such mistakes, even as world-ending possibilities were narrowly averted.

Yet the same tendency toward paranoia is even stronger within the Chinese government, which often suspects foreign meddling where there is none. The surveillance balloon crisis, as minor as it is, hasn’t been helped by China’s complaints over the U.S. shootdown or its refusal to take top-level calls from the Pentagon. Blinken’s trip will likely still go ahead in the coming months, but the incident serves as a reminder of just how fragile relations remain.

Meanwhile, in other news, China has trained squirrels to sniff out drugs. We must ask ourselves: What else could the squirrels be trained to do? Can the United States afford a “squirrel gap”?

What We’re Following

Tracking China in the State of the Union. Biden’s annual State of the Union address on Tuesday took a while to get to foreign-policy issues, but when it did, the president was emphatic on China. He mentioned that he had taken steps to “protect our country” against the Chinese spy balloon and spent some time emphasizing that while the United States seeks cooperation, it also sees competition with China in not just economic terms, but ideological ones. “In the past two years, democracies have become stronger, not weaker,” he said.

Biden’s approach to the speech seemed clearly influenced by the narrative shift in the last two years, as China’s faltering economy and failed zero-COVID policy dealt a blow to the idea that the country would inevitably overtake the United States one day. But what has largely been missing from the U.S.-China competition is the idea that drove the early Cold War: that the countries’ two systems were competing to offer a better life to their own citizens.

In part, that’s because even if China’s GDP overtook that of the United States, it would still lag far behind in per-capita terms. It’s also a result of the ideological confusion within China, where people who believe in idealistic socialist policies are few and far between, as well as the deep political divisions in the United States. Biden spoke of competition with China as bringing Americans together; outside of congressional committees, that still seems unlikely.

More space for single mothers. China’s recent demographic panic may lead to an unexpectedly good outcome: lifting restrictions on single mothers. Having a child outside of marriage can result in harsh penalties, from fines to an inability to receive the child’s hukou—the vital residence permit that governs access to Chinese social services. As a result, some single mothers have entered fake marriages to register their children or bribed their way around the system.

At the end of January, Sichuan—one of China’s largest provinces—revised policies to allow all parents to register an unlimited number of children, whether they are married or not. It’s possible these moves will also open up more space for surrogacy, which is a legal mess in China, and potentially even gay parenthood. But natalist models of the traditional family remain the general trend in China, and both single mothers and their children still face social discrimination.

FP’s Most Read This Week

Britain Is Much Worse Off Than It Understands by Simon Tilford

How a Chinese Spy Balloon Blew Up a Key U.S. Diplomatic Trip by James Palmer

Is the U.S. Military Capable of Learning From the War in Ukraine? by Raphael S. Cohen and Gian Gentile

Tech and Business

Tainted coffee firm booms again. After a massive scandal in 2020, Luckin Coffee, an expansionist chain with an emphasis on cheap online ordering, appears to be thriving again. Nearly three years ago, the firm was revealed to have invented $310 million in revenue, leading to a slate of lawsuits, bankruptcy in the United States, and the firing of some of its chief executives. But today, Luckin’s stock price is booming and it claims to have more branches than any other coffee outlet in China, even Starbucks—including almost 500 opened in January alone.

The firm is planning a serious expansion into Southeast Asia, using the same business model of numerous small outlets with a focus on online orders. It is remarkable that the firm managed to grow rapidly last year, as most companies in China suffered from COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions. By its own account, in the period between July and September 2022, Luckin increased its revenue by 66 percent compared to the previous year.

Artificial intelligence rush. As elsewhere, Chinese firms are in a frenzy about the new wave of artificial intelligence technologies. Technology firm Baidu, which has invested considerably in AI, is set to release its own ChatGPT competitor next month. Although it’s not yet officially available in China, users are already getting value out of the Chinese version of ChatGPT. But the United States seems to be ahead in terms of actual products, despite its fears that China is winning the AI race.

Friends in China have told me about one particularly intriguing use of ChatGPT: ideological study. Chinese Communist Party members must produce lots of homework, including “self-criticisms” that use reliable cliches—something on which generative language models thrive. It was already possible to buy pre-written versions of these online or to use a template; ChatGPT has simply automated the process.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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