Trial Balloon: Did the Pentagon deliberately sabotage Blinken’s China visit?

Feb 7, 2023
The balloon over Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, shortly before being downed.

It seems the Pentagon has floated another one.
The net result of this incident thus far is that the secretary of state has called off a scheduled summit to Beijing intended to reduce tensions.

Let us think some early thoughts about the Pentagon’s announcement, reported in this morning’s dailies, that it has detected an intelligence-gathering balloon, “most certainly from the People’s Republic of China,” as the Defence Department statement put it, in the atmosphere high above Montana. Our thoughts cannot lead us to conclusions: It is too early to draw any, and we must refrain precisely because the notion of responsibility has all but disappeared from our public discourse, leaving publications such as this among the few remaining guardians of this virtue.

It is nonetheless not too soon to consider events of the past few hours so as to prepare ourselves for what we will be told in the next few.

Cui bono? translates as “To whom the good?” Or, more commonly, “Who benefits?” Cicero famously posed the question and put it in our common lexicon. If you think about it, this is a rhetorical device of use when the information available about a give event is limited: The whole is not visible. It is an exercise in tracing back according to motive. Let us bear this in mind. It is a method of inquiry readymade for our circumstances this morning, for the information we have about the Pentagon’s announcement can by no stretch be accepted as complete.

If the Pentagon declared its dead certainty as to the balloon’s origin, its identification of the balloon as a surveillance craft was in the way of an assertion—far short of certainty. A question already: Why this distinction? This may seem a subtle point to those who do not know how to listen to the U.S. government, but it is significant. The worthwhile lesson here is, Parse what is said very carefully.

Other questions. Why, as The New York Times reported high in its initial piece on this event, did the Pentagon immediately seek to minimize the import of its own announcement? This came over to me as an exercise in purposeful containment, as if Defense’s intent was to get a piece of startling news out to the public but minimize its practical consequences.

To continue. If The Pentagon identified a spy craft above Montana, where there are 150 intercontinental ballistic missiles in silos—missiles pointed across the Pacific—why did it not shoot it down or otherwise apprehend it? The Pentagon’s explanation—and here I will draw a conclusion—is simply too flimsy to accept.

The Times has deleted the Pentagon quotation from its coverage, but the initial statement was, in paraphrase, We didn’t shoot it down because the debris would have caused damage in “the debris field,” presumably a reference to the area where the balloon would have fallen to earth. The debris from an air balloon posed such a risk? It does not hold up. A spy craft has infringed on U.S. sovereignty and hovered over a vast area full of ICBMs, and the Pentagon did not apprehend it?

No, sorry.

The net effect here is that we will never see the balloon, in all likelihood not even a photograph of it, rather in the way we never saw any evidence of the long-running, hysterical claims of Russia’s cyber-sabotage during the Russiagate years.

These are among the facts we now possess and can contemplate.

The most recent reporting, which comes out hourly as I write, has it that the Air Force scrambled fighter jets to track the balloon as early as Wednesday, that the path of the balloon was across the Aleutian Islands and down through Canada, that the Canadians detected a balloon, too, that there may have been more than one balloon, and that there is no threat, none, on either side of the border, to American or Canadian security.

I was quite struck by the speed with which things unfolded in Washington subsequent to the Pentagon’s announcement. So far as I can make out, it was mere hours later, and very possibly not many of them, that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy—a Sinophobe through and through, who now plans to follow his predecessor’s reckless visit to Taipei with one of his own—insisted publicly that President Biden must act in response to developments.

Let us think another thought. If the Air Force had jets in the air as early as Wednesday, it seems to me the presence of the balloon and the Pentagon’s knowledge of it would have been known to people of McCarthy’s station well prior to the first news reports. I am willing to suggest, if tentatively, that McCarthy’s call for presidential action was carefully timed to coincide with the first headlines in The Times, The Washington Post and elsewhere in the major media.

And then the kicker. A couple of hours after McCarthy’s public performance—a little after 10 this morning, Eastern time, State Department officials announced that Antony Blinken has called off an imminent trip to Beijing. It would have been the first official visit to China by a secretary of state in four years.

In an update time-stamped 11:01, The Times reported that Blinken had spoken to the Chinese Embassy about the balloon matter as early as Wednesday evening and that this morning, Washington time, he called Wang Yi, protested that China had violated American sovereignty and canceled his plans to meet Wang and other top Chinese officials.

Hmmm. Is this what the moment called upon America’s top diplomat to do? Blinken’s stated intent when his plans were laid last November was to ease tensions. Now, when an incident in the air heightens tensions, he cannot go to Beijing because tensions have been heightened. Hmmm again.

There is the Chinese response to the Pentagon’s announcement. It was at first cautious, indicating it did not yet know what was what with the balloon and urged the Americans to avoid “speculation and hype” and approach the matter with prudence. This was reported in The Times by Chris Buckley, a correspondent I once edited and whose judgment and balance, I confess, I never quite trusted, as a devious dodge.

Beijing has since concluded that there was indeed a balloon of Chinese origin over Montana and that it was a weather balloon that had blown off course. Here is part of the Foreign Ministry’s official statement late Friday morning East Coast time:

The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes. Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure.

Straightforward, I would say. Dignified, properly apologetic. Explains to my satisfaction, if not Chris Buckley’s, the Foreign Ministry’s initial uncertainty.

Was the balloon simply monitoring weather patterns or was it on an espionage mission? It could have been the latter. I did not know this, but many nations use balloons as high-altitude surveillance craft: the U.S. uses them, as does France, another aeronautically sophisticated nation.

But wouldn’t the Pentagon and the China hawks so thick on the ground in Washington have run many more miles with this incident if this were the case? Why the calm in Washington today? Wouldn’t the U.S.A.F. have done more than merely watch it—more or less passively, it would seem?

We must wait for more, in the tentative expectation there will be more to come. There may not be, I am compelled to add. There seems a good chance at this early moment that the incident will linger briefly and disappear like so many others of its kind.

We are left for now with our Cui bono? It seems a good question, and it may be the only one we’ll ever be able to go by.

The net result of this incident thus far is that the secretary of state has called off a scheduled summit to Beijing intended to reduce tensions. So there will be no such reduction. And Blinken has not—pointedly, it seems—announced any plans for a new date. The State Department’s “postponed” stands for now a “canceled.”

The cui in this bono goes at this moment to the Pentagon.

There has long been tension between the generals and the diplomats on all questions to do with America’s policies toward China and the Pacific altogether. The pitch of this contention must not be underestimated, nor should the importance the Pentagon especially, attaches to it. The Defense apparatus and all the defense contractors count trans–Pacific tensions the mother lode of their incessant insistence on “threats” to America. Threats in the Pacific theater are the sine qua non of the military-industrial complex’s perverse prosperity—the mother’s milk for General Dynamics, Raytheon, and all the others.

Viewed in this context, the Pentagon seems to have just won a big one, though I cannot for the life of me imagine why the defense cliques would consider an ineffectual diplomat such as Antony Blinken any kind of worry. He has got little done across the Pacific, and nothing at all with the Chinese.

This is the best early thought I can offer.

Original article published in the Scrum on 5 February 2023.

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