Chinese Spy Balloon Puts U.S. Back on Cold War Footing

The presence of a Chinese spy balloon in U.S. airspace may put the country back on a footing similar to the Cold War era when Soviet balloons and the satellite Sputnik caused alarm among Americans.

Some commentators on social media have already made the comparison between the balloon, which U.S. officials said had been flying over the country for several days, and similar incidents during the Cold War when the U.S. and the former Soviet Union were global superpowers locked in competition.

Former President Donald Trump called for the balloon to be shot down on his Truth Social platform on Friday, joining other conservatives who have expressed apparent alarm about the balloon.

“Why won’t Biden shoot down the Chinese spy balloon that is currently flying over the United States?” tweeted Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn on Thursday.

 President Joe Biden in the Oval Office
U.S. President Joe Biden makes brief remarks at the beginning of a meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in the Oval Office at the White House on February 2, 2023, in Washington, D.C. Some Republicans have taken aim at Biden over a Chinese spy balloon currently flying over U.S. territory.
Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla

“The Chinese Communist Party is a threat to our existence,” she added.

President Joe Biden first became a U.S. senator in 1973 during the period of détente, when then-President Richard Nixon promoted an improvement of relations with the Soviet Union.

A senior administration official told Newsweek on Thursday that the president was advised “not to take kinetic action because of risk to safety and security of the people on the ground. President Biden took that recommendation.”

The official also noted that similar activities had been observed in the country “over the past several years, including prior to this Administration.”

Concerns about the spy balloon come at a time when China is increasingly seen as the main global competitor to the U.S. and a new, bipartisan House select committee has just been created “on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party.”

Craig M. Singleton, senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) told The Wall Street Journal: “We’re seeing a return to a tool of the Cold War used in an era of renewed great power competition.”

Mark Shanahan is an associate professor at the University of Surrey, in the U.K, and author of Eisenhower at the Dawn of the Space Age, as well as co-editor of The Trump Presidency: From Campaign Trail to World Stage.

He told Newsweek on Friday that the reaction to the Chinese spy balloon was comparable to the reaction to the famous Soviet satellite, Sputnik.

A Projection of Chinese Power

“Americans have been hypersensitive to the threat of foreign objects in the sky since 1957 when the Soviet Sputnik beeped its way around the globe,” Shanahan said.

He noted that in the 65 years since “surveillance techniques have improved immeasurably, and the Chinese are far more likely to scrutinize U.S. assets from low-orbit satellites than to rely on a balloon floating high in the atmosphere subject to the whims of wind and weather.”

“This may be a very visual projection of power by the Chinese—quite literally keeping them on the U.S. military‘s radar,” Shanahan said. “But as a threat to the U.S., it’s minimal to the point of inconsequentiality. With Secretary of State Blinken set to visit Beijing imminently, it’s a likely sign from China for the U.S. not to take the rising power in the east lightly.”

However, Secretary of State Antony Blinken‘s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing next week was postponed on Friday amid outrage over the spy balloon.

Cold War Tensions

With Blinken’s impending talks with Xi (postponed as of Friday), President Biden should avoid inflaming any tensions, Shanahan told Newsweek, noting long-running U.S. concerns surrounding the Soviet Union in the past and China now.

“From the time of Eisenhower in the White House and the overflight of the USSR first by America’s U2 spy planes and then by its first Corona surveillance satellites, the United States has sought mastery of the skies,” Shanahan said.

“Of course, as early as 1957, this was challenged by the public perception of the Soviet Sputnik satellite that, briefly, struck fear into the U.S. public concerned both that the Russian bear could peer down on the lives of Americans, and then obliterate them with a rocket-powered nuclear strike,” he said, warning that Republicans may attempt to reignite Cold War fears.

Xi Jinping
President Xi Jinping of China enters the APEC Economic Leaders Sustainable Trade and Investment meeting at he Queen Sirikit National Convention Center on November 19, 2022, in Bangkok, Thailand. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has reportedly postponed a planned visit to China amid outrage over a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon spotted over American airspace this week.
Getty Images/Lauren DeCicca

“But, like Sputnik, the Chinese balloon poses no real threat and Biden & co. would do well not to inflame any modern Cold War tensions by giving this provocation any more attention than it deserves,” he said.

China’s ‘Brash’ Approach

The spy balloon’s presence over the U.S. is likely to boost politicians who view China and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a threat, according to Thomas Gift, founding director of University College London’s Centre on U.S. Politics.

“The Chinese spy balloon is just the latest example of Beijing operating in an increasingly brash manner toward the West,” Gift told Newsweek.

“While the incident itself is unlikely to escalate U.S.-China tensions, and Washington is under no illusions that more covert activity like this happens every day, it does raise red flags,” he said.

Gift said that politicians who are “eager to maintain a tough-on-China approach will use it as more evidence that Chinese leadership feels increasingly emboldened in its posture toward the United States.”

“For the White House, it’s something that Biden will need to take seriously, even as it tries to navigate its ever-complex political and economic relations with the CCP,” he added.

Update on 03/02/2023 at 11:15 E.T.: This story was updated to reflect that Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s trip to Beijing has been postponed.