Rejecting China’s Danse Macabre

During the Cold War, the United States was serious about the defense of its airspace. The principal threat was penetration from Soviet bombers. To defend U.S. and Canadian airspace, the United States created a network of radar stations in the far north, called the Distant Early Warning Line. Naval vessels and aircraft off U.S. coasts also provided radar warning of an attack. Later, other more powerful radars and satellites took over the weight of the responsibility to detect an attack. To down an aircraft once it had been detected, the U.S. Air Force’s Air Defense Command had many squadrons of interceptors augmented by Canadian forces, and the U.S. Army built a ring of Nike surface-to-air missile sites around the country to shoot down aircraft.  

As the Soviet bomber threat was never the equal of its land-based ICBMs or submarine launched ballistic or cruise missiles, U.S. air defenses atrophied. The end of the Cold War only accelerated the decline. After 9/11, there was a renewed emphasis on the threat from aircraft, drones, and cruise missiles, but the balloon incursions belied the willingness of the Biden Administration to down them. Weaknesses also seem to be present in the ability of the U.S. Northern Command to identify them. One hopes that the ability of Northern Command to detect them has improved, as evidenced by the number it seems to have detected in the wake of the most notorious one, which waltzed through U.S. and Canadian airspace before it was ultimately downed off the coast of South Carolina. 

China’s intent is clear. In the wake of the U.S. inability to detect and down them, the balloons serve three objectives. 

First, and most obviously, they want to collect intelligence against U.S. and Canadian targets. 

Second, they serve as a salvo in political warfare to convey to the rest of the world that the United States is unable to detect them and so is a declining military power. Although this is far from the truth, the United States does itself no favors when it either fails to detect or fails to down balloons once identified. This message is for a global audience. For friends the message is that the United States is in decline and its extended deterrent, upon which key allies like Australia and Japan depend, is weakened. China hopes U.S. allies conclude we will not be able to protect them. Our enemies, on the other hand, are emboldened as we beclown ourselves watching for days as an enemy balloon drifts over our sovereign territory. 

For most of the world, what China has accomplished appears to be a great coup over the United States. For these audiences, it lends weight to Beijing’s claim that the future belongs to China, and America’s days are long gone. 

Third, China’s brutal message to the American people is that it will kill them, and kill them by the many scores of millions, if war comes. The balloon’s antecedents previously sent over Hawaii and elsewhere over United States sovereign territory reminds Americans that the U.S. mainland is vulnerable to attack by China. The balloon’s dance in sovereign U.S. airspace is a powerful message to the American people. It is indeed a danse macabre.  

While those were China’s aims, fundamental issues arise over the balloon crisis for the American people. China’s message that it will kill Americans if war comes compels an immediate and reciprocal response. This retort should be bold, sharp, and delivered in the spirit of the best of Yankee ingenuity and the loudest Bronx cheer. In sum, it must be the rejection of all things backed by or supporting the Chinese Communist Party and the ostracism of Americans who invest and trade with China or support the CCP. 

While the Biden Administration will not provide this leadership, Americans have to act in their best tradition of individual action. 

First, Americans must reject China’s apps like TikTok, and that nation’s 5G technologies. 

Second, they have to stop investing in China through their retirement or other investments. Wall Street’s enablers of the CCP like Larry Fink and BlackRock should become household names in America—in the worst way. 

Third, the American people should demand that Wall Street stop allowing China to raise capital in U.S. markets. 

Fourth, they should make similar demands of Silicon Valley, U.S. businesses, universities, and media—and their state, local, and federal politicians. 

Fifth, they should see the CCP for the deadly enemy that it is, an enemy that intends to kill them in kinetic war. But equally, the CCP is an enemy that is already killing Americans in the undeclared chemical weapons attack that is the opioid crisis. Moreover, this enemy for decades has been robbing Americans of their birthright and futures through the legal and illegal transfer of technology and manufacturing. 

Finally, the American people must say they are through with the Chinese regime and its leader Xi Jinping. The CCP’s atrocious human rights record, exploitation of people and the environment wherever its businesses are present, the genocide against Muslims in Xinjiang, the threats to U.S. allies and partners, and the fact that it is the enemy of the American people all suggest that the American people must demand of their government that the CCP is totally and unconditionally defeated. 

Shooting down balloons is necessary but won’t win this struggle. It is far better to aim at taking down the CCP. 

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About Bradley A. Thayer

Bradley A. Thayer is coauthor of Understanding the China Threat and Director of China Policy at the Center for Security Policy.

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