China Floats a Trial Balloon Over Montana

The Pentagon says ‘the balloon has violated U.S. air space and international law’ while China claims it is a civilian ‘airship’ used mainly for meteorological research. Images: Chase Doak/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

Secretary of State

Antony Blinken

on Friday postponed his visit to Beijing scheduled for next week after a suspicious Chinese balloon was spotted over Montana. Good decision. But the public deserves to know more about this episode, and one uncomfortable lesson is that the U.S. homeland is increasingly vulnerable.

The Pentagon said Thursday night it had “detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon” over the U.S. F-22 fighter jets and other assets were sent to examine the balloon, and one question is why the U.S. didn’t shoot it out of the sky. The Pentagon admits it’s been lurking in sovereign U.S. air space for “a couple of days,” notably near bases for U.S. nuclear missiles.

The military brass advised against shooting down the balloon, though the stated reason—risk of debris—seems manageable. No one doubts China would have shot down an American asset wandering over its bases. The Pentagon won’t say whether it may take out the balloon once it’s over water.

Beijing’s official explanation is that this is merely a hapless “civilian airship” that made a wrong turn and . . . ended up near U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile bases. “China regrets that the airship strayed into the United States,” the foreign ministry said.

So the balloon heads over the Aleutians, strays over Canada, but China acknowledges the balloon only after the U.S. announces it has been discovered over Montana? This isn’t believable, and the patent dishonesty will add to the U.S. public’s growing mistrust of China.

What other Chinese surveillance exercises haven’t we been told about? The Pentagon says there have been other “instances of this activity,” over the past several years, including in previous Administrations, but that this balloon loitered longer. China also uses satellites to spy on the U.S., and the Pentagon insists the balloon poses little intelligence risk. But the U.S. government took unspecified steps to shield sensitive assets, and Sen. Tom Cotton notes the balloon may be “an intelligence bonanza.”

Beijing may also be testing what it can get away with, as it often does. Someone thought the intrusion was worth the effort and risk of discovery. Did war hawks in Beijing want to blow up Mr. Blinken’s visit? It’s also possible the balloon has some surveillance or probing benefit that hasn’t been disclosed.

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.

Any conflict with China could feature cyber attacks on the U.S. electric grid, electromagnetic attacks, hypersonic vehicles, and soon perhaps weapons run by artificial intelligence.

Vladimir Putin

mentioned this vulnerability this week, rattling that “a modern war with Russia will be very different” for the West than the tank and artillery fight in Ukraine. Most Americans aren’t aware of these dangers, and our political leaders aren’t telling them.

The U.S. doesn’t want war with China, and it would be best for the countries to develop a modus vivendi to avoid it. But that won’t happen if China behaves with impunity. Lying about claims in the South China Sea; trashing its treaty with Hong Kong; cyber theft; unsafe aerial intercepts of foreign planes; using trade to bully countries over Taiwan—all of this is contributing to bipartisan suspicion against China in the U.S. The balloon will surely be fodder for the House’s new bipartisan select committee on competition with China.

Postponing Mr. Blinken’s trip was important but easy. Now the Biden Administration will have to demonstrate to Chinese President

Xi Jinping

that he can’t violate U.S. sovereign territory without consequences.

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Appeared in the February 4, 2023, print edition as ‘China Floats a Trial Balloon.’


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