American politicians have long been trying to warn the public of the challenge posed by China, says Richard Fontaine in The Atlantic. They’ve talked up the dangers of Beijing’s growing economic might, and the threat to the international order. But the message never really cut through – until now. When that first Chinese spy balloon “drifted across the US, and into America’s consciousness”, it focused attention like nothing else before. What was previously an abstract danger – military activities in the South China Sea, say – suddenly became a “visible” threat. And that could mark a “turning point” in the competition between the world’s two superpowers.
America wouldn’t be the first place where public opinion on China has shifted because of a specific episode. For Australia, it was Beijing’s interference in domestic politics in 2019; for Canada, the unfair detention of two citizens for more than 1,000 days. And the balloon incursion looks set to “stiffen spines” among America’s other allies, too. Japan has launched an investigation to identify potential intrusions into its own airspace; Britain has begun a security review. The Biden administration is making the most of all this: it has shot down three more airborne objects, keeping the story on the front pages, and held briefings with 40 other countries. It must be careful not to overreact: “America is slow to boil but quick to boil over.” Yet this episode will likely “shift perspectives for good”.