Biden, the balloon, and the age of anti-China one-upmanship


As a Chinese spy balloon drifted across the U.S., Joe Biden kept quiet for four agonizing days while the rest of Washington rushed to weigh in on the diplomatic crisis.

But on Saturday, after a fighter jet finally downed the orb over the Atlantic Ocean, Biden sought to make one thing clear: He was itching to pull the trigger.

“I ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down on Wednesday, as soon as possible,” Biden said, delaying only after others raised safety concerns. “I told them to shoot it down.”

The single missile fired by an F-22 Raptor brought a swift end to an international incident that captured the country’s attention, and underscored the growing bipartisan consensus that when it comes to politics, it pays to be tough on China.

Republicans spent days assailing the White House over the balloon, filling the vacuum created by its deliberations with accusations that the administration had gone soft on a geopolitical foe. Democrats, alarmed by China’s brazenness and under pressure to stake out their own hardline stance, had begun to join in on the calls for aggressive action.

And when Biden got the go-ahead on Saturday, he dispatched the balloon in an overwhelming show of force, sending several fighter jets after the spy craft as it floated out to sea.

The White House has since gone out of its way to emphasize that Biden had planned a violent end to the incursion from the beginning. Senior officials said the president ordered it shot down as early as Tuesday, shortly after learning it had entered American airspace. They noted that Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a scheduled trip to China. But even supportive voices wanted more.

Brett Bruen, director of global engagement under former President Barack Obama, said Biden should recall his ambassador to China Nicholas Burns for consultations and throw out the head of Chinese intelligence at their embassy in Washington. He added that he believes individual sanctions need to be imposed on those involved.

“I would recommend Biden get Xi [Jinping] on the line and read him the riot act,” Bruen said. “He should threaten that the next time an incident of this nature takes place we will release sensitive secrets that Beijing’s leaders would rather not be exposed.”

The hostile one-upmanship aimed at China over the intelligence-gathering balloon served as just the latest example that lawmakers across the political spectrum see a clear benefit in taking a hawkish stance toward the global power. Even as China remains a crucial trading and economic partner, Republicans and an increasing number of Democrats are positioning the country as a key political concern — and thus a domestic and geopolitical battering ram.

Over just the last couple of years, lawmakers have blamed Beijing for worsening the spread of Covid and exacerbating supply chain shortages. Senior officials in the Biden administration and on Capitol Hill have raised national security concerns tied to Chinese apps like TikTok, and hardened their rhetoric over the independence of Taiwan.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) made her final international pilgrimage as speaker to the island nation and current Speaker Kevin McCarthy has signaled that he too will visit there as a sign of solidarity against China.

The president himself has swept up competition with China into his broader rhetoric about an epic clash unfolding globally between democracies and autocracies.

And while the administration waited days before shooting down the balloon, it notably chose to publicize its existence and bring it down rather than keep the matter out of public view. A senior Defense Department official noted on Saturday that several similar balloons had been spotted during Donald Trump’s administration with no public outcry.

Chinese officials condemned Biden’s reaction to the surveillance balloon as “excessive,” and asserted that they retain the right to “respond further.” But domestically, Biden faced pushback for not moving more aggressively.

GOP leaders, including Trump, fanned fears over the potential intelligence risks while taking political shots at Biden.

“Biden is letting China walk all over us,” tweeted former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who is on the verge announcing her 2024 presidential bid. “It’s time to make America strong again.”

Former Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is also eyeing a presidential run, tweeted a video portraying him aiming his own gun at the balloon and boasting that he “took many shots at the CCP” during the Trump era.

Several Democrats took a similarly hard line against the violation of U.S. airspace, demanding decisive action even as most defended the White House for its prudence in waiting to down the balloon so that the falling debris did not hurt people on the ground.

“We have a real problem with China on a number of issues, from their human rights violations to their violations of international business law, to even the challenges we’ve had with them on overt spying,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “I’m grateful that the military took decisive action when they did and how they did, but we obviously have issues here.”

Biden, meanwhile, has appeared to relish the opportunity to talk tough on China, casting himself as a fighter for America’s global dominance and bulwark against Chinese efforts to expand its sphere of influence.

“As I point out to our friends in the [European Union], don’t get angry we’re going to be [at] the beginning of the supply chain,” he said during a fundraiser on Friday, referring to foreign criticism over his economic policies. “Because that’s the only guarantee you’ll have access.”

That confrontational attitude represents a significant departure from Democrats’ stance toward China just a few decades ago. During Bill Clinton’s administration, the party’s predominant thread of concern about China was centered on humanitarian grounds.

The White House itself sought to pursue a policy of “constructive engagement” with the Chinese government, eager to see the economic spoils of a more open relationship. They were cheered on by Wall Street Republicans and self-described foreign policy realists who felt that engagement with the communist nation was a strategically smarter way to defang it.

But the relationship grew strained as China’s ambitions widened throughout the Obama and Trump eras. And lawmakers and voters became more critical about jobs being lost and national security being compromised.

Bruen said taking a harder line on China has become broadly popular because the world has witnessed so many egregious acts over the last several years — whether it’s genocide against the Uyghurs, the violent repression of peaceful protesters in Hong Kong or the lack of transparency on Covid.

“But unlike our response to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s aggression, we need to act faster and put in place more deterrents, whether from launching balloons or invasions,” Bruen told POLITICO. “This moment should refocus leaders not only on strong statements and symbolic acts, but to develop a real strategy for countering Chinese aggression.”

Biden himself has yet to weigh in on how the incident will shape his own approach toward China. But hours before shooting the balloon down, the president couldn’t help but let slip his enthusiasm for the chance to send a strong message to his critics at home and rivals in Beijing.

“We’re gonna take care of it,” he said.

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