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Spy Balloon Saga: Tensions Climb in the New Cold War

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On February 4, the United States Air Force shot down a Chinese-operated high-altitude balloon off the coast of South Carolina. This sparked a major diplomatic incident between the U.S. and China. Secretary of State Antony Blinken abruptly canceled what would have been his first visit to Beijing since 2018. At a subsequent international security conference in Munich, Blinken had a tense confrontation with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Six businesses linked to the balloon were added to the U.S. Commerce Department Bureau of Industry and Security’s Entity List, a U.S. exports blacklist. Soon, a paranoid balloon panic broke out, with three more balloons being downed that turned out to have no relationship with China.

The Republicans got in on it as well. In spite of the balloon incident inflaming the U.S.-China New Cold War, Republicans attacked the Biden administration for not inflaming things enough. Thus we were treated to frothing-at-the-mouth warmongering, such as Senator Katie Britt (R-AL) tweeting “How can the Chinese Communist Party believe we’ll protect Taiwan if the Biden Admin doesn’t even have the stomach to deal with a balloon?”

As for the Chinese response, they initially tried to pass off the balloon as a civilian weather balloon. Mao Ning, spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs denounced the shooting down of the balloon as “an unacceptable and irresponsible action.” Later, China’s Defense Ministry said they “reserved the right to use necessary means to deal with similar situations.”

When the balloon incident broke out, the U.S. and China had been trying to calm down the New Cold War. This, for instance, was the purpose of Blinken’s intended visit to Beijing. What is really telling about this incident is not that the Chinese were spying, but that this incident was enough to derail the attempt to reset the relationship a bit after so much escalation.

A Hypocritical Response

The fact that China is spying on the U.S. is hardly news. Of course China is spying on the U.S., and of course the U.S. is spying on China. Currently, the Chinese government is claiming that the U.S. had spy balloons over Xinjiang. This is certainly believable and, even if it doesn’t turn out to be true, the U.S. has definitely used spy balloons against China and the Soviet Union in the past as part of Project Genetrix.

The whole incident brings to mind the 1960 U-2 incident, in which the Soviet Union shot down a U.S. spy plane. As with the balloon controversy, American authorities initially portrayed the plane as civilian weather research aircraft operated by NASA. However, a few days later, the Soviet government produced the captured pilot and parts of the U-2’s surveillance equipment, including photographs of Soviet military bases, revealing its illegal purpose.

With this in mind, the response of the U.S. government is completely hypocritical. Chinese spying operations are simply following in the footsteps of their fellow imperialists.

More worrying than the spying itself is the very public warmongering and escalations on both sides of the new Cold War, exemplified by China’s recent threats to arm Russia in its war against Ukraine. 

The War Machine Springs to Life

Especially given the war in Ukraine, the U.S. and China are both publicly committed to avoiding a direct military conflict with each other. At the same time, both countries are objectively preparing for war.

China has been massively expanding its navy, with its fleet expected to reach 420 ships in the next two years. They’ve been staking claims in the South China Sea that encroach on the sovereignty of other countries in the region. 

The Chinese navy has conducted drills around Taiwan that repeatedly crossed the “median line” in the Taiwan Strait. This is a notional, unofficial boundary, but it was largely respected by both sides for decades. By making these incursions, Chinese imperialism seeks to establish new “facts on the ground” in order to support the CCP’s claim of sovereignty over the whole waterway.

In response, U.S. imperialism and its allies are also ramping up militarily in the Pacific. Japan pumped $320 billion into its biggest military build-up since World War Two. In response to Chinese imperialism’s incursions in the South China Sea, Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of the former U.S. puppet dictator, has invited the U.S. to increase its military presence in the country.

The immediate threat of war between China and Taiwan receded as a result of the war in Ukraine. However, the underlying forces behind the U.S.-China conflict have been exacerbated by the same conflict. If China invaded Taiwan and the U.S. retaliated, the war could easily spread to involve Japan, India, Australia, and NATO. 

In a memo to his officers, Gen. Mike Minihan, head of Air Mobility Command wrote, “I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me [we] will fight in 2025.”

Growing Sinophobia

Meanwhile, at home, the balloon controversy has been used to whip up anti-China sentiment, especially by the right. This has had very real consequences. Already since Trump and his railings against the “China virus,” the U.S. has had a sharp uptick in anti-Asian violence. This has continued beyond Trump.

The rise in anti-Asian violence has been accompanied by legal attacks. Back in 2020, the Trump administration tried unsuccessfully to ban TikTok. Now, renewed attempts at banning the platform have gained bipartisan support.

Even more worrying is legislation in Texas and other states, barring not only Chinese businesses, but Chinese nationals, from owning farmland in the state. When anti-China sentiment first came to prominence, many were quick to lay the blame solely on Trump. But it’s clearly much more deeply tied to the growing inter-imperialist rivalry.

The Chip War

Even before things come to blows over Taiwan, the U.S. has declared economic war on China. In August, the CHIPS Act passed into law providing $50 billion for the construction of microprocessor plants in the U.S. This was followed by new export controls announced by the Biden administration in October. These block the sale to China of advanced computer chips and the tools to make such chips. The measures from the U.S. Commerce Department apply not only to U.S. companies but also to foreign companies if their products contain U.S.-made components or software.

The goal of these measures is to keep China years behind in high-end tech and to hobble China’s economic development, (particularly its plans to achieve breakthroughs in key fields such as A.I., supercomputers, advanced robotics, and – crucially – next-generation weapons systems).

A subsidiary concern is that U.S. imperialism wants less reliance on Taiwan’s semiconductor industry, especially should that fall under China’s control in a war.

Working Class Solidarity

There have been attempts since the balloon incident to scale back tensions. But the damage is done. The U.S.-China conflict emerged in the context of the long-term decline of U.S. imperialism, while Chinese imperialism was on the rise and increasingly assertive. Now China’s economy is in deep crisis while the CCP regime is floundering, abandoning Zero COVID and facing increased dissatisfaction from workers and young people. Arguably the rise of Chinese imperialism has peaked. This does not make the situation less dangerous. Increasing U.S. confidence, resulting from its reassertion during the Ukraine conflict, and deepening crisis in China can lead to a military adventure by the CCP to forestall the threat of revolution.

At the end of last year, mainland China saw the biggest protests since 1989. The movement receded in the wake of repression and concessions, but these have resolved none of the underlying issues behind the crisis of Chinese capitalism and it’s an inevitability that similar protests will reemerge. 

The growing inter-imperialist rivalry poses the danger of war on a much larger scale than Ukraine. The force that can challenge that is the international solidarity of the working class. Ultimately, it is only through workers taking power out of the hands of the warmongers and billionaires, and doing away with capitalism and imperialism, that a future of war, conflict, and environmental destruction can be averted.

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