china Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence: The Pentagon’s Balloon Floats On 

Why is the Biden regime not making serious, vigorous representations in Beijing—threatening a break in relations, diplomatic expulsions, or other such retaliation for a breach of American sovereignty—about this "spy craft?"

By Patrick Lawrence / Original to ScheerPost

It is just as well that Antony “Guardrails” Blinken has called off his long-scheduled visit to Beijing, which was due to begin Tuesday. It would have been his first since taking over at State and the first by a secretary of state in four years. But Blinken would not have got any guardrails in place or built any exit ramps, which he seems to consider his highest calling. Let us wonder, parenthetically, if our Tony wasn’t meant to be a transportation engineer.

No, given the events of the past few weeks, the time for guardrails, exit ramps, and even “easing tensions”–was psychotherapy Blinken’s missed vocation?–would appear to be past for the Biden regime and its relations with Beijing. In my read, Blinken just spared himself another in a considerable line of embarrassments since he made a dog’s dinner of his first encounter with his Chinese counterparts during that infamous debacle in an Anchorage hotel two years ago next month. 

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The stated reason for Blinken’s cancellation—and as he has not proposed a future date, it is a cancellation, not the advertised “postponement”—was the Chinese balloon that floated across Montana’s skies last week. I will have a few remarks about this very odd incident, a hall of mirrors in its own right, in due course. For now just two points to note immediately.

One, the appearance of the Chinese balloon in American airspace was a godsend for Blinken. Setting aside his exceptional mediocrity, no American diplomat can hope to get anything done with China while representing an imperium that grows ever more belligerent in the Pacific theater. Easing tensions, guardrails, and all the rest are notions intended to secure the quiescence of the American public—to keep the imperium hidden from view. The Chinese do not take such talk the slightest seriously. They keep the door open to serious negotiation with the U.S. as a matter of principle, but they entertain no illusions whatsoever that a high American official of so provocative an administration as Biden’s will walk through it. 

Two, let us note it was the Pentagon that announced the balloon incident and managed the day-to-day presentation to the public. State and the White House were left to react to the news, at least publicly. Behind this small detail lies a large, decisive victory for the generals—and a defeat for the diplomats, though they have not for decades fought their corner in these matters with any discernible vigor or conviction.

Remember all the grand talk of “diplomacy first,” and “the military will be our last resort” during Biden’s presidential campaign in 2020 and his early months in office? That was just more of this jumped-up provincial pol’s patented snake oil, as the wiser among us understood from the first. This guy was never serious about a shift to responsible statecraft. He has a general solidly in with the arms merchants running the Defense Department and the most pitiable nerd since John Kerry—and this goes back, wow, three secretaries—running State.  

If the balloon incident merits consideration on its own, what happened 60,000 feet above Montana last week cannot be understood without careful reference to other, more consequential developments over the course of the past few weeks—or, depending on how you count, years. 

A few weeks ago Biden welcomed Fumio Kishida to the White House. There in the Oval Office he enlisted the willing Japanese premier in Washington’s increasingly aggressive campaign to threaten China and, finally, draw it into a military confrontation. When Kishida departed for Tokyo, Japan was certified as what Yasuhiro Nakasone, the nationalist premier during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, long wanted to make it: As Nakasone said, “an unsinkable aircraft carrier” stationed in the western Pacific.

I counted the Kishida–Biden summit big news. News as big or bigger came last week, just before the balloon business, when Defense Secretary Llyod Austin met in Manila with Ferdinand Marcos—yes, scion of the dictator—and the Filipino president opened the islands to nine, count them, locations where U.S. troops, ships, and aircraft will be permitted to rotate in and out. The rotation arrangement is a way around the post–Marcos constitution, which bars all foreign troops from being stationed on Filipino soil. So they are not stationed there: They come and go and may as well be. 

“This is a big deal,” Austin said while in Manila. “This is a very big deal.” I am with the secretary on this point. Look at a map. The Philippines’ northernmost islands are but 90–odd miles from Taiwan. Rotating, schmotating, American troops and matériel of all sorts will now be positioned to deploy effectively and rapidly in a ground, air, and sea operation against China in direct defense of the island territory—which has become, since Mike Pompeo’s day as Blinken’s predecessor, the epicenter of a majorly reinvigorated U.S. military presence at the far end of the Pacific. What Austin got done in Manila last week has been in the works at least since early 2019, when the Pentagon sold Capitol Hill on what it called its “Regain the Advantage” plan — as if the U.S. had ever lost it. Congress renamed the operation the “Pacific Deterrence Initiative” and promptly threw scores of billions of dollars at it. These billions continue to flow.  

Look at the map again. Between the Kishida agreement and the Marcos agreement, Washington has secured the military cooperation of two of America’s alliance partners in the Pacific to make a north-south arc far closer to China’s shoreline than Hawaii is to California. A third treaty ally, Australia, has for years cultivated a confrontational stance toward China and welcomed an increased U.S. military presence–a tilt diametrically opposed to the interests of Australian citizens and businesses, if not the nation’s defense cliques. 

John Lander, a veteran Australian diplomat, gave an encyclopedic account of this increasingly militarized relationship in a lecture to the Committee for the Republic a couple of weeks ago. I urge readers to view it here. When it appeared on our computer screen, we were riveted. The household came to a stop until Lander had finished.

Amid these “facts on the ground,” the voices of hawks in Washington grow shriller and more worrisome. 

In a memo dated February 1 but leaked several days earlier, a four-star Air Force general instructed units under his command to begin concrete preparations for war with China he predicted will come by 2025. Gen. Mike Minihan heads the U.S. Air Mobility Command—he is in essence a logistics man—and to go by his photograph and what he has to say for himself he is straight out of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Minihan’s memo—leaked, but I am not sure how confidential it was actually meant to be—laid out a nine-point plan as “preparation for the next fight.” “I hope I am wrong,” he commented after the memo was made public. “My gut tells me we will fight in 2025. Xi’s team, reason, and opportunity are all aligned for 2025.”

O.K., the American military is replete with kooks such as Minihan whose off-the-wall utterances are never heard beyond the barracks. We’re seeing something different now. Michael McCaul, the new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee responded to the Minihan memo this way on Fox News Sunday after it was made public: “I hope he’s wrong as well. I think he’s right, though, unfortunately.”

Think about this, the view of the most powerful figure in the House on the foreign policy side. Now think about Blinken’s just-canceled visit and what the Chinese thought about it. 

The line in Washington before the balloon incident disrupted Blinken’s plans was that his trip to Beijing was especially well timed. Guardrails had to be put in place, tensions had to be eased. What tales the policy cliques tell themselves. A report published Saturday in The Diplomat tells us Beijing saw little point in Blinken’s encounter with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi.  “Sections of China’s officialdom and academia are adamant that the U.S. secretary of state should not be welcome in Beijing,” the magazine reported. And that is just the subhead atop the piece. The whole is worth reading for its careful reporting. 

In effect and according to what official statements have been made, Blinken intended to try once again what has failed since the Anchorage disaster in March 2021: He proposes to persuade Beijing to accept that the U.S. wants to cooperate in some areas—climate, health, and so on, the easy stuff—compete on the economic side, and confront in matters of security. This is naïve in the extreme, the thinking of people who have spent too much time in Washington offices and not enough among other people and in other nations. 

The Chinese read newspapers and can read maps. Shall we leave it at that, and conclude Blinken is fortunate to be off the hook with the Chinese for a good long while? 

I made some initial comments on the balloon incident as the news broke Friday morning, taking care not to draw conclusions. They are here for those interested. 

Here I shall take some care to draw a few conclusions.  

By all available indications, no, the Chinese did not send a high-altitude balloon the size, I read, of several school buses, to gather intelligence on fields of intercontinental missile silos spread across Montana while remaining undetected. Not a persuasive proposition. 

The Pentagon asserted without equivocation that the balloon was “certainly from the People’s Republic of China.” It did not identify the balloon as a surveillance craft in any way Pentagon officials, or any others in Washington, had their names on such a statement. It “assessed” that the balloon was on an espionage mission. Always be wary of this word “assess.” It is a weasel word that does not commit anyone using it to anything. It means, at best, “We don’t know and cannot say.” Or it means, “We know this is not true and will not stand by it but want the public to think it is true.”

No thanks. This is precisely the trick played when “the intelligence community”—that preposterous phrase—put out its “assessment,” in January 2017, of Russian culpability in the theft of Democratic Party email six months earlier. That “assessment” turned out to be nonsense, of course. But no spook had to answer for all the fallacies. 

Why is the Biden regime not making serious, vigorous representations in Beijing—threatening a break in relations, diplomatic expulsions, or other such retaliation for a breach of American sovereignty? Why did the Air Force follow the progress of the balloon all the way across the United States, presumably as it gathered intel all the while, as if it were some kind of harmless curiosity? On Saturday the U.S. shot the balloon down as it drifted across the Atlantic, so there will be no balloon to examine. Interesting. We never saw evidence of Russia’s hand in the pilfered email, either. 

All the evidence to date, which is not to say there is very much, indicates the craft was an off-course weather balloon on a civilian mission, just as the Chinese Foreign Ministry said it was after an apparently careful investigation of the matter Friday. Assume this is so and the above queries have answers. 

The media’s reporting of this incident is down there with the worst of the rubbish they served up during the Russiagate years. In the same stories, numerous of them, The New York Times reported the Pentagon’s “assessment,” then the Chinese explanation, and then went on to refer to the balloon as a spying craft in all subsequent mentions. It continues to do so as we speak. 

The government-supervised Times outdid its own silliness on Saturday morning, by which time it was obvious the status of the balloon as an espionage craft was open to serious doubt. China claims the balloon was used for meteorological purposes, The Times reported. However, the Pentagon says it was a collection device, although it was not sophisticated enough to gather intelligence on the ground below. 

This is a close paraphrase, as Times editors have since deleted this passage from the paper’s website, and I do not blame them. Consider carefully what is being said. 

One, weather balloons are collection devices. Collecting data is what they do. The contradiction The Times pretends to present is sheer chicanery. Two, it was a surveillance balloon but was not capable of surveilling.  

I know The Times well, from the inside as well as out. This is how its editors and reporters slide out the side door when they are at risk of exposure for having misled readers. They sometimes present us with riddles. In this case: It was not a weather balloon because it was a collection device, and let us ignore the fact that weather balloons are by definition collection devices. It was an espionage craft even though it was incapable of espionage.

Answer to the riddle: It was a weather balloon.

The tomfoolery surrounding the balloon incident will soon be forgotten. But do not miss, readers: We have just witnessed an unusually messy and visible round in the decades-long contention between Pentagon generals, whose power waxes without interruption, and a purposefully weakened State Department, whose power has steadily waned with the rise of the national security state.

In this connection, were Blinken in the slightest serious about his easing tensions project, he would have ordered a plane from Andrews Air Force Base and flown to Beijing as soon as he had word of the balloon incident. I see two reasons he didn’t. One, his scheduled talks with Wang Yi, as I have suggested, were a fool’s errand from the first. Two, the Biden regime quickly understood the Pentagon had trumped State once again and, as a matter of political expedience, they had to cave to the Capitol Hill hawks. 

The contention I describe has long been especially intense in trans–Pacific affairs. During my years as a correspondent in Tokyo and elsewhere in East Asia, I drew the conclusion that Washington does not have a foreign policy in the Pacific: It has a security policy run by the military. No honest American diplomat ever contradicted me.

A balloon of little consequence just popped over the Atlantic. The Pentagon’s floats on.  

Patrick Lawrence
Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a media critic, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon siteHis Twitter account, @thefloutist, has been permanently censored without explanation.

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