The wandering balloon episode shows Biden's lack of crisis management
Published: Feb 05, 2023 07:41 PM
Biden Photo: CFP

Biden Photo: CFP

A "wandering balloon" - an utterly harmless civilian airship used for meteorological research, blown by wind and accidentally entered into US airspace via Westerlies - has made the US, a superpower which shows off its military muscles around the world, react as if it were confronted by a formidable enemy. 

Members of Congress shrieked about the so-called threats to US national security, as if Doomsday was approaching. Amid the screams, the balloon turned into a target of a US F-22 fighter jet's "first kill." The act of rudely damaging Chinese civilian property quickly drew criticism from Chinese Foreign Ministry and Chinese Ministry of National Defense. However, in the US, the political farce surrounding the wandering balloon is continuing, which helps us comprehensively understand the main challenge confronting China-US ties, as well as the ill nature of US domestic politics. 

According to a statement of US Department of Defense issued on Saturday US time, "the balloon did not pose a military or physical threat… Chinese balloons briefly transited the continental United States at least three times during the prior administration." Yet compared with the frank, open and calm manner of the Chinese authorities, the performances of some US politicians in the current Biden administration can be said as hysterical.

The US is the world's largest military superpower. In December 2022, US President Joe Biden approved a record $858 billion defense spending bill for 2023. The figure not only ranks the first on global scale, but is also more than the military expenditure of the next nine countries combined. Yet the superpower somehow freaks out about a wandering balloon, which exposes it as a paper tiger. 

From the perspective of modern military technology, balloons have long been logged off from mainstream military toolkits. The use of balloons, especially the type involved in the latest incident, which can be sent to the Earth's stratosphere, is for collecting meteorological information. 

Yet Politico magazine made a "serious" analysis, claiming they are "cheap, can carry a lot, and can hang out for a long time" for "surveillance missions." To put it bluntly, this is deliberately pretending to be anxious. If such balloons were as efficient as surveillance equipment, they would have appeared in the Pentagon's purchase list long ago. Anyone who understands this technology knows that US satellite surveillance system, as well as regular close-in reconnaissance toward China, are the ones that can be described as aggressive and amok. 

Seeing how the incident was hyped up in the US, people can clearly see that US domestic political struggles are compressing the room for Washington to make responsible decisions for crisis management and strategies for stability. 

In light of the historical development of the strategic games of great powers after World War II, crisis management and strategic stability require effective communication and exchanges among major countries on emergencies based on facts and seeking truth from facts. 

In the practice of China-US relations, the US has been talking about crisis management all the time, with various terms and concepts, including "setting guardrails." Now, when the west wind blows over a balloon, time has arrived to show US' rational, prudent, professional and responsible attitude. But how it turned out? Political figures in Washington are jumping up and down, yelling and screaming, seizing the opportunity to show their toughness and firmness, without the decency or grace they are supposed to have, and they have made China-US ties the victim of political infighting among different factions, when they are hitting and biting one another. They are extremely irresponsible. 

Another manifestation of such irresponsibility is displayed by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's reportedly planned visit to China. It is supposed to be a follow-up of the China-US summit in Bali, Indonesia, in November 2022. But the US side seems to have mistakenly believed that Blinken's Beijing trip is some kind of gift from the US to China, and the US side can make it work if it likes, and can cancel the trip if it doesn't. 

As Chinese Foreign Ministry points out, "One of the tasks of the diplomatic teams on both sides is to properly manage bilateral relations, particularly to manage some unexpected situations in a cool-headed and prudent manner. In fact, neither side has ever announced that there would be a visit. It is a matter for the US to make its latest announcement, and we respect that."

That being said, be it the narrative that Blinken was planning to visit China, or the reports that the trip was postponed, they are all monologues from the US, which are not in line with either diplomatic management or the rules-based laws that the US has been talking a lot, or the consensus reached by the two sides after consultation. The one-man show of the US will do no good to help China-US relations back to the sound track as soon as possible. 

The wandering balloon episode echoes an old Chinese saying - life can be really simple, but some insist on making it complicated. The reaction from the US is bringing troubles on oneself. It is hoped the US diplomatic team can amend its improper approach, break away from the shackles of American political infighting, manage bilateral ties in a truly responsible manner, meet the Chinese side half way, and calmly and prudently deal with emergencies and accidents. That is crucial to both the China-US ties and the world. 

The author is director of the Research Institution for Global Cyberspace Governance at Fudan University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn