Tensions over China's balloon may not just blow over

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

A U.S. military jet shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday, bringing one of the stranger foreign policy incidents in recent memory to an end.

The balloon’s slow drift across American territory became the subject of intense interest — and countless puns — after it was first spotted in the skies above Montana last week. President Biden told reporters that he initially ordered the military to shoot down the balloon right away, but said he was advised to wait several days until it had traveled over the ocean to avoid the potential danger that falling debris might pose to people on the ground.

Though the balloon traveled near potentially sensitive areas, including a base housing nuclear missile silos in Montana, the military reportedly felt that the aircraft wouldn't reveal any significant intelligence to China beyond what is already available through its satellites. The Navy is now working to recover pieces of the balloon that may prove useful in determining what information it was able to gather during its long path over American soil.

Chinese officials, who have insisted that the balloon was a civilian research device, condemned the decision to destroy the balloon, claiming it represented an “excessive reaction that seriously violates international convention.” Tensions over the balloon come at a time when the relationship between Beijing and Washington has grown increasingly strained, with the longtime rivals at odds over a slate of major issues, including nuclear weapons, trade policy, territorial disputes and the looming threat of a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

On Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a heavily anticipated trip to Beijing just hours before he was scheduled to depart, fearing that all the attention going to the balloon would drown out other important issues the two sides needed to discuss.

Why there’s debate

China spying on the U.S. — and vice versa — is hardly new. Both nations have a broad set of much more sophisticated ways to track each other’s activities. But many experts believe the hubbub over the balloon could still have a significant effect on the already tenuous relationship between two of the world’s major powers.

Conservatives across the board have been fiercely critical of the Biden administration’s decision to not shoot down the balloon when it was first discovered. Beyond the potential intelligence implications of that choice, they argue that the delayed action is a sign of weakness that could embolden China to take advantage of America’s perceived timidity on a variety of fronts.

Some foreign policy analysts say the incident shows how vulnerable China is at the moment. They make the case that any nation that considered itself to be a true rival to the U.S. wouldn’t have to resort to what they see as a bumbling ploy to influence discussions between the two countries.

But others say all the fuss over the balloon is an indication of how dangerously fraught U.S.-China relations are. Some are concerned that such a minor event could inspire so much saber-rattling from both sides. There are also worries that tough talk from conservatives — and even some Democrats — could push the U.S. into an unnecessarily adversarial posture toward China and increase the risk that a future disagreement could escalate into a potentially devastating war.

What’s next

The U.S. has recovered “some remnants” of the downed balloon from the ocean’s surface, but weather conditions have complicated efforts to retrieve material from the ocean floor, a spokesman for the National Security Council told reporters on Monday.

It remains to be seen how much information about the balloon, or several others that are said to have traveled over the U.S. in recent years, will be disclosed to the public.


The balloon should be a wake-up call about the serious threat China poses to the U.S.

“Okay, okay, the whole Chinese spy balloon thing was a lot of fun. It should also — when combined with near daily [Chinese] provocations — jolt us out of our national complacency with regard to the Chinese Communist Party’s ill will toward us and its nefarious actions on the high seas, in the skies, and in the realm of cyberspace.” — Mark Antonio Wright, National Review

The incident shows how little real leverage China has against the U.S.

“The shooting down of China’s comic-book spy balloon extends China’s humiliation, and the Biden team deserves credit for pushing back against Xi and turning his aggression against him. But at the same time the administration must also remember that China remains a major power, and that the White House better find ways of working with Beijing. … The thing about cold wars is that you don’t want them to escalate.” — Sebastian Mallaby, Washington Post

Both nations need to get more serious about mending ties or the risk of war will be very real

“Biden’s America has a lot to lose too, if it listens to the hawks, relies on military options and allows relations with the world’s biggest trading nation and nascent superpower to deteriorate further. So does a watching world. Washington and Beijing should treat the wandering balloon as a warning from on high — and quickly find better ways to get along.” — Editorial, Guardian

Biden’s delayed response will only invite more incursions from China

“There is a cost to this hesitation. It confirms Beijing's belief that Biden is weak and hesitant. It undermines the confidence of U.S. allies and partners that, when the next crisis comes, Biden will be ready and able to act decisively.” — Editorial, Washington Examiner

There is now no doubt that the U.S. is engaged in a new Cold War with China

“This is another confirmation that we’re in the early days of Cold War 2.0, where mutual surveillance was one of the tensest issues. … Washington has a keen interest in reading the mood on the ground in China following the tumult of last year’s protests and reversals of its zero-COVID policies. But an already cold relationship between the world’s two largest powers just got a bit frostier.” — James Palmer, Foreign Policy

The fact that something so minor could raise tensions is a worrying sign

“For pure gall, there was something different about the balloon. … Beyond the made-for-cable-news spectacle, the entire incident also speaks volumes about how little Washington and Beijing communicate.” — David E. Sanger, New York Times

The overwrought response from many in Washington is the real danger

“The utter banality of the balloon did not stop both Democrats and Republicans from acting as if this were a Cold War crisis of maximum danger. … While China-bashing has in recent years become a bipartisan affair, the fact that Democrats indulge in it so frequently empowers Republicans to be even more xenophobic.” — Jeet Heer, Nation

The American public is now fully aware of China’s intention to dominate the world

“The trial balloon ought to pop U.S. illusions that China’s behavior is irrelevant to Americans at home, or that Beijing is merely contesting farflung Pacific islands in a supposed sphere of influence. Beijing’s ambitions are global, and the U.S. homeland is vulnerable.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

More incidents like this will undoubtedly come, and the two nations need to get better at working through them

“Neither Washington nor Beijing have a clear sense of how to communicate or deconflict, and don’t even have many channels to regularly practice doing so. That ambiguity makes a miscalculation or an escalation more likely. As China seeks to build its power abroad, and the US seeks to contain or restrain it, the possibility of close calls or misunderstandings will build with it.” — Jen Kirby, Vox

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Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Andre Malerba/Bloomberg via Getty Images, Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images, Chad Fish via AP