The Chinese spy balloon spotted over the U.S. and shot down on Saturday has suddenly brought once-distant fears into America's backyard, which could set off a kind of "butterfly effect" of a small incident that leads to a much more dangerous showdown.
PARIS — The Chinese spy balloon shot down over the U.S. this past weekend embodies the "Chinese threat" that many Americans already feared. At the same time, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken's decision to cancel a scheduled trip to China is a bad sign for frayed U.S.-Chinese relations.
What should worry us is not the balloon, but what it symbolizes. Shot down on Saturday by an American jet over the Atlantic after it had drifted into U.S. territory, the balloon wasn't a threat in of itself. It's a toy compared to the arsenals held by both countries.
Still, this almost obsolete balloon has come to symbolize the "Chinese threat" that Americans hear about day and night. Until now, this threat was abstract, distant — around tensions with Taiwan, or in semiconductors.
It now has a face, in the form of this Moon-like balloon that appeared in the Montana sky, drifting above the state's nuclear silos.
The main effect of this symbolic appearance is to have raised anti-Chinese fever among the American political class, as well as strong, unanimous approval for the White House's decision to postpone Blinken’s trip to Beijing — even at the risk of allowing an already tense relationship to deteriorate further.
So many sources of tension exist between these two giants of the 21st century.
Blinken, who would have been in Beijing today, would have been the first American secretary of state to visit China since 2018. The two countries planned the visit during Joe Biden and Chinese number one Xi Jinping's meeting on the sidelines of the G20 in Bali in November 2022.
The goal was less about reconciling the two nations' points of view, and more about learning to manage disagreements and the rivalry, when so many sources of tension exist between these two giants of the 21st century. The trip would have happened as the very real war in Ukraine continues, and as the threat of conflict looms in Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Now, postponing the meeting risks prolonging the unease in Sino-American relations, which is fed every day by accusations, suspicions and threats.
Debris falling from the sky after the Chinese spy balloon was shot
One wonders why China risked sending this balloon over the United States at a time when such an important dialogue was expected to start.
If it was a stray weather balloon, as Beijing claims, there's so little trust between the two that Washington didn't believe a word of it. If it is indeed a spy device, China has made a serious mistake. Analysis of the debris now being recovered by the U.S. Navy will make it possible to identify the balloon's purpose.
It would be logical for this dialogue to resume soon, but attitudes toward China have hardened in Washington, making the search for a compromise even more difficult. In Beijing, too, the Chinese reaction plays on nationalist sentiments, even if it's not a given that public opinion will follow along.
This episode shows all the dangers of the tense climate. A balloon over Montana can have repercussions thousands of kilometers away, possibly as far as Taiwan. Watch out for unforeseen consequences.