It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s . . . a balloon? As a Chinese reconnaissance “airship” wended its way across Alaska, Canada and the continental United States last week, it ushered in an amusing if fraught moment in US-China relations. The Biden administration and Congress should not let this moment go to waste.
The last time this many American eyes were drawn skyward was October 1957, when the Soviet Union shocked the world by launching a satellite into orbit. While Americans haven’t reacted with the same fearfulness that they did to Sputnik (and rightly so), many beneath the balloon’s path may have had thoughts akin to those of then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson: “Now, somehow, in some way, the sky seemed almost alien.”
Great powers constantly spy on each other in all manner of creative and wily ways. But it’s not every day that an American looks up into the sky and literally sees a foreign adversary staring right back.
The balloon’s passage undoubtedly inspired some overheated rhetoric, but for many Americans it was also the first tangible experience of rivalry with China. It was a visible, brazen violation of American sovereignty right over the American heartland, clearly aimed at the American nuclear deterrent — the backbone and ultimate guarantor of American national security.
Congress should and will investigate the administration’s handling of the incident. Should fighter aircraft have shot the balloon down when it first entered Alaskan airspace? Was the Defense Department, as it has claimed, genuinely able to neutralize the airship’s intelligence-gathering capabilities as it traversed the United States? Did the intelligence community glean useful information from observing how the balloon operated and where it went?
Given the revelation that multiple balloons have popped up near or over American territory in recent years, why did the administration seem so unprepared for this latest stratospheric visitor?
But even as Congress seeks answers to these questions, it should join hands with the Biden administration to leverage Americans’ disquiet about a foreign power operating over their heads while those concerns remain fresh.
Here is an opportunity to explain, while Americans are still listening, how and why China threatens US national security and what is required to defend national interests against a Communist regime that is predatory, dismissive of international law and blatantly disrespectful of US sovereignty.
In the wake of Sputnik’s appearance in the night sky, President Dwight Eisenhower created the forerunner of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, signed into law the National Defense Education Act and effectively launched the space race — which, of course, would end with Americans triumphantly walking on the face of the moon.
While a balloon race may not be in the offing, now is the moment for policymakers and legislators to think big and act even bigger. Significant and sustained increases in defense spending, major investments in higher education (both in science, technology, engineering and math, STEM, and in area studies), fresh free-trade initiatives, legislation aimed at enhancing US competitiveness and new efforts to deny China the means to aggrandize its own power should all be in the cards.
The political posturing on both sides of the aisle in recent days was to be expected and is likely to continue. But there is an opportunity here to get valuable work done as well — to better prepare the country for its burgeoning rivalry with the People’s Republic of China. Republicans and Democrats should come together to ensure this moment doesn’t end in a pointless burst of hot air.
Michael Mazza is a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the Global Taiwan Institute and the German Marshall Fund of the United States.