What's Behind the Spy Balloon Hysteria?

tags: China, espionage, Spy Balloon

Heather Cox Richardson is Professor of History at Boston College and author most recently of How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America.

The Chinese spy balloon shot down off South Carolina on Saturday after spending four days in U.S. airspace will almost certainly make the history books but not because, by itself, it is a hugely significant factor in the changing relationship between the U.S. and China under President Joe Biden. The reason the balloon will be remembered in the future is that the Republican response to it has been so completely unrelated to reality, and has been so magnified by the media, that it has provided a window into the dysfunction of modern politics.

The facts are these: On Saturday, January 28, a Chinese airship entered U.S. airspace north of the Aleutian Islands, then crossed Alaska. It left U.S. airspace, then reentered over northern Idaho on Tuesday, January 31. On February 1 it was over Montana. On February 3 it was near St. Louis, Missouri. On Saturday, February 4, the pilot of an Air Force F-22 shot the airship down in shallow water off the coast of South Carolina, where the wreckage could be recovered.

The Trump administration had an inconsistent relationship with China. Trump attacked China in a trade war early in his presidency, placing tariffs on a range of products (which induced China to retaliate, prompting Trump to pump $28 billion into the U.S. farming sector to compensate for lost revenue). But by 2019, according to Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton, Trump “pleaded” with Chinese leader Xi Jinping to help him get reelected in 2020, and inked a deal for China to buy significant amounts of the farm products it had turned to other countries to provide after the tariffs (that was why Trump downplayed China’s role in hiding Covid in the early months of 2020). According to former representative Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), Trump also asked congressional leaders to “lay off” Xi, because Trump didn’t want to disappoint Xi.

In contrast, Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have worked to counter China by building Indo-Pacific cooperation, reinforced U.S. support for Taiwan, established export controls on technology that have hamstrung the Chinese semiconductor industry, worked to counter Chinese investment in Africa, and enhanced security cooperation with South Korea and Japan.

But the balloon sparked a frenzy from Republicans insisting that Biden had been weak on China or even was working for China: right-wing talk show host Mark Levin said Biden is “bought and paid for by the Communist Chinese government,” and former president Trump said that Biden “has surrendered American airspace to Communist China.” Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) said China was showing “that the United States is once-great superpower that’s hollowed out, it’s in decline.” South Carolina Republican representative Joe Wilson—the man who shouted “You lie” at President Obama—said that Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris should resign from office because of the balloon.

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