What if it hadn't been China's balloon?
On the loyalties of a navy, the price of aggressions, and the questions to ask about what's floating overhead
A good, if uncomfortable, thought experiment proposed by Christopher Balding, regarding recent events: "Imagine it was a Russian balloon[;] the Galaxy Brain would be having an aneurysm." To the extent that the response to China's balloon incursions would be different if they had been Russian or Iranian or Syrian, it's well worth asking why.
■ Does China get special treatment because of its enormous economic scale? If so, what is the price of national security? Is there a dollar value that could be assigned to the amount of aggression the United States would be willing to absorb before considering the costs too much?
■ Does China get treated differently because it is somehow assumed to be less capable than other countries? If so, then its efforts to demonstrate rapid industrial development and scaling ought to be taken more seriously. China's navy has launched its third aircraft carrier as part of an accelerated development program. (And it should not escape notice that the army and navy of China answer to the Communist Party, not to the citizens.)
■ Does China get some kind of benefit of the doubt because it isn't seen as a nuclear power? Russia may control more warheads, but China has 400 and is trying to more than triple that number within a dozen years. And the country's political powers have shown flagrant disregard for human rights (consider the abuses in Xinjiang), so it's not as though there are principled decision-makers at the helm.
■ Balding's question deserves a robust examination, because if it appears that we're operating from faulty assumptions about the character of adversarial powers, that's a problem we alone can fix. It is solvable, to be sure. But it isn't solvable from the outside. Seeing the world as it is (and not merely as we wish it to be) is a matter of discipline. Just as nobody else can floss your teeth for you, nobody from the outside can force a society to deal with substantive problems in a clear-eyed manner.
Some are more harmless than others