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If you thought the Chinese spy balloon saga would deflate as fast as the balloon did over the Atlantic Ocean, you're sadly mistaken. Days after a U.S. F-22 destroyed the device with a single air-to-air missile at 58,000 feet, the story continues to hover over the news cycle like a blimp over Mile High Stadium. The only difference is we can't use a fighter jet to bomb the conversation out of existence.
Take the emotion out of it, and the discovery of the spy balloon is a relatively mundane event. By the Pentagon's own admission, this isn't the first time Beijing has pulled something like this — and it's not even the first time it has occurred over U.S. territory. Indeed, as members of Congress and pundits were running around with their hair on fire about the balloon blocking the sun, another one was spotted somewhere over Latin America. Such incursions aren't ideal, of course, but they aren't surprising either — and if U.S. defense officials can be taken at their word, they also aren't very effective in scooping up information.
Nor is spying some new development in the world of statecraft. People have been spying on one another since the dawn of time; the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the British Empire, the Persian Empire, the Soviet Union, Saddam Hussein, Vladimir Putin, they all have done it. Even friends conduct espionage on one another; in 2013, France's former chief of domestic intelligence said Paris often practiced the dark arts against Washington.
The U.S., too, tries to get as much information as it can on its allies' decisionmaking. The U.S. tapped the phones of three French presidents between 2006 and 2012, and the National Security Agency did the same thing to then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel, which caused a significant diplomatic dust-up at the time.
The uproar over the balloon, it seems, is less about China trying to gather intelligence than on the fact that the balloon was allowed to drift across U.S. territory for nearly a week before President Joe Biden ordered the Air Force to shoot the thing down. Mix in the typical partisanship and the politics of looking tough on China, Washington's most significant competitor in the world today, and the entire conversation becomes laughably juvenile. In the view of some lawmakers, China was attempting to peer into the private lives of the American people and the Biden administration exposed itself as a weak miscreant hesitant to pull the trigger.
Back on planet Earth, the balloon was shot down over water. The amount of intelligence the balloon captured was minuscule, perhaps even redundant to what Beijing already possesses. U.S. divers are in the Atlantic collecting the debris. And China's Xi Jinping, who likes to project himself as a leader in total and full control, looks like a fool internationally for his limp excuses about the device being a meteorological tool. If anything, the affair is as much a controversy for Xi as it is for Biden.
What's done is done. The more important issue on the table is how the U.S. and China choose to go forward. Do they let a common instance of espionage derail attempts at establishing guardrails over the world's most important bilateral relationship? Or do both countries press ahead on the diplomatic initiative outlined by Biden and Xi during a bilateral summit last November, when the two committed to preventing U.S.-China relations from going deeper into the sewer?
The early indications are troubling. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to visit China this past Sunday, a trip that included a sit-down with Xi — the first time in nearly six years America's top diplomat would set foot on Chinese soil. In the heat of the moment, however, Biden decided to cancel Blinken's meeting after Washington discovered the Chinese spying device drifting over Alaska and Canada into Montana.
Beijing's actions, Blinken told reporters Friday, "created the conditions that undermine the purpose of the trip, including ongoing efforts to build a floor under the relationship and to address a broad range of issues" that are of importance to the international community. While Blinken left open the option of visiting China when conditions allow, he didn't outline what those conditions would be.
Given the sensationalism surrounding #BalloonGate, the administration likely felt it didn't have a choice but to do something, beyond destroying the balloon, to register its disapproval of China's actions. The political environment in Washington being what it is — overwhelmingly hawkish on China policy, with a sprinkling of reasonable voices that press for responsible competition mixed in — the White House would have suffered if it allowed Blinken to fly to Beijing. Postponing the trip was one of those simple moves that could be taken immediately, and one whose diplomatic fallout would be minimal.
That's the hope, at least. It's also the best-case scenario, for the last thing Washington and Beijing need right now is a relationship in even deeper turmoil. We aren't talking about two pipsqueak countries with next to no geopolitical significance but rather two economic giants that make up around 42% of the world's gross domestic product and more than half its military spending and have a booming trade relationship of their own.
These are two countries whose navies frequently traverse the same congested Asian waters, including but not limited to the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. And these are two countries that, systemic foreign policy and economic disputes notwithstanding, really don't have a choice but to learn to live with each other.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune.