Voices: Make no mistake, the Chinese spy balloon incident cannot be ignored

The suspected Chinese spy balloon drifts to the ocean after being shot down off the coast in Surfside Beach, South Carolina on 4 February (Reuters)
The suspected Chinese spy balloon drifts to the ocean after being shot down off the coast in Surfside Beach, South Carolina on 4 February (Reuters)

On Saturday night, my dog peed in my apartment game room. “Don’t you do it,” I said tersely when I caught him lifting a leg. He looked me in the eye, raised his leg further, and peed all over a cornhole sack. He knew he was being a bad boy, and he wanted me to know he knew.

The Chinese spy balloon is kind of like my dog peeing in the game room. Last summer, General Mark Milley – chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – warned that “China’s increasing in their aggressiveness in their rhetoric, but also in their activity,” noting that Chinese intercepts in the air and at sea have increased drastically over the past five years. The spy balloon, which we’ve now learned is not the first to violate US airspace, is part of that escalating bellicosity.

Xi Jinping, China’s increasingly authoritarian leader, has weathered several incidents which could jeopardize his still-tight grip on absolute power. There were protests against the nation’s restrictive Covid policies, which impeded citizens’ access to healthcare, food, and other basic human rights. The Chinese economy has slowed, with 2022 being one of the worst years for growth the nation has faced in 50 years. The Belt and Road Initiative, a drive by China to build infrastructure in more than 100 countries in an attempt to grow its influence but which has been characterized as “colonialism with Chinese characteristics has slowed. This is, of course, a play on “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” which is ostensibly the ideology of the capitalistic and authoritarian Chinese Communist Party.

It makes sense, then, that Xi would act out in order to demonstrate to those at home and abroad that he is still a force to be reckoned with. Just like my dog was trying to tell me he wasn’t getting enough attention while I played board games with my friends, China was using the balloon to communicate to the Americans that it is not to be taken lightly. “Beijing is probably trying to signal to Washington: ‘While we want to improve ties, we are also ever ready for sustained competition, using any means necessary,’ without severely inflaming tensions,” air-power analyst He Yuan Ming said in an interview with the BBC. “And what better tool for this than a seemingly innocuous balloon?”

The American people certainly seemed to find the balloon innocuous, even entertaining. The hashtag #chinesespyballoon has more than 90 million views on TikTok. Folks across the country flocked to social media, tracking the balloon as it floated from Montana to the eastern seaboard. Crowds gathered in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, cheering as the balloon was shot down over the Atlantic. Even Republicans, while throwing a temper tantrum over Biden letting the Chinese spy on us, are largely ignoring sightings of a spy balloon over Hawaii and Florida during the Trump administration.

All of this feels like the wrong reaction. There was a time when politics stopped at the shore, and Democrats and Republicans would unite against a common threat. Now, however, Republicans have spent more time criticizing Biden than China. Marjorie Taylor Greene is calling for an inquiry into why former President Donald Trump was unaware of the previous spy balloons – at least three separate incidents in his administration, we now know – instead of the fact that China is sending spy balloons in the first place.

When a dog pees on the floor, you scold him and you clean it up. You don’t focus on what his previous owner knew about his urinary habits.

Likewise, when a foreign adversary is caught brazenly spying on your homeland, you retaliate. Just as you don’t physically hurt your dog – I used my tone of voice to express my disappointment – you don’t overreact in your retaliation. But you do make it clear that spy balloons over the American heartland will not be tolerated under any circumstances.

The Biden administration, for its part, seems to understand this. Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed his trip to China over the incident. Biden himself has adopted a more muscular foreign policy towards China than Trump ever did. He has effectively warned off China from backing Putin’s illegal war in Russia. He has promised to intervene militarily should Beijing attack the island nation of Taiwan. In October, he warned that we face a “descisive decade” in our rivalry with China.

Indeed, we do. That should be the lesson every single American takes from the spy balloon saga. China is a fast-rising power with eyes on building a global empire. Xi is “deadly earnest on becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world,” President Biden said in a speech to Congress in 2021. “He and others – autocrats – think that democracy can’t compete in the 21st century with autocracies.” Beijing’s increasingly belligerent attitude towards Taiwan, its continued crackdown on human and civil rights at home, its imperial designs on Africa and central Asia, and its flagrant violation of U.S. sovereignty with the spy balloon all point to Biden being correct.

This is not just a rivalry between two nations, but two competing ideologies – that of a free and open society verses a repressive and closed state. It isn’t even communist verses capitalist, or left verses right in the way Americans are used to thinking. It is liberty verses tyranny, democracy verses autocracy.

That is why the spy balloon is no mere social media meme or Saturday Night Live sketch (funny as Bowen Yang was and always is). This is why my dog metaphor only works to a point. While useful in discussing deliberate bad behavior as a way of communicating a message and how to proportionally respond, it works. The difference, of course, is that my dog peeing on a cornhole bag is something my friends and I could laugh about.

China openly spying on and antagonizing the United States by violating its sovereignty, on the other hand, is deadly serious. The 21st century will be a contest between democracy and autocracy. Republicans who haven’t embraced the latter – and let’s be clear, here: many have – need to put politics aside and stand with President Biden. Democrats need to welcome their support. And the American people need to start taking this threat seriously.

This time it may have been a spy balloon. Who knows what it will be next time.