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How the Chinese balloon saga reflects a long, difficult U.S. rivalry



Fractured relationship between US and China after NATO summit

It’s not at all surprising the recent Chinese “weather balloon” incident has set off alarm bells.

Concerns inevitably mounted as the massive sphere slowly and very visibly sailed from Montana to its destruction by a Sidewinder missile off the South Carolina coast.

It didn’t help that a jittery media quickly reported on three additional sightings (and downings) over Alaska, Yukon and Lake Huron — with both the Canadian and American governments choosing science-fiction-tinged language to label these flying objects “unidentified aerial phenomena.”

But the Chinese origin of the first flying object — defended as a meteorological balloon by China, an explanation that was met with skepticism by U.S. officials — was especially concerning due to the long history of serious tensions between the United States and China.

The U.S. has routinely and historically described Chinese behaviour as aggressive.

In more recent years, Americans have pointed to China’s threatening gestures toward Taiwan, expansionist moves in the South China Sea and efforts to dominate important economic sectors (such as advanced semi-conductors).

Long-time challenge

Last year, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged to “remain focused on the most serious long-term challenge to the international order — and that’s posed by the People’s Republic of China.”

But even understandable concerns warrant careful analysis. Cooler heads can help determine whether every alarm is fully justified or whether dealing with perceived aggressions might benefit from looking at the bigger picture.

President Joe Biden ultimately said the three flying objects shot down over North America — after the initial Chinese surveillance balloon was downed — don’t appear to be part of China’s spy balloon operation and were instead linked to private companies.

Determining the appropriate level of anxiety about China’s supposed weather balloon itself will have to wait until an autopsy on whatever remains of the recently decimated flying object can be gathered — but consideration of the broader context is possible now.

Amid the balloon brouhaha, Gen. Glen VanHerck, the head of NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), was asked why earlier balloon sightings had not prompted such concern.

He replied the most recent incidents had brought about a recognition of a “domain awareness gap” — which means NORAD needs to improve its monitoring capabilities for objects like balloons — adding NORAD didn’t have the right mix of sensor capabilities.

Awareness gap

As a historian, I suggest the “domain” with a real “awareness gap” is greater than the one VanHerck acknowledges — because the balloon saga must be assessed within the context of decades of stormy U.S.-China relations.

On the espionage and surveillance front alone, there has always been mutual suspicions and activity. For many years, Americans had the advantage of economic, military and technological superiority by way of the well-funded Central Intelligence Agency and tools like U-2 spy planes.

In a 1960 incident, in fact, when an American U-2 was downed by the Soviet Union over Soviet air space,, Nikita Khrushchev stormed out of a Paris summit — in a way comparable to Blinken cancelling his trip to Beijing when the Chinese balloon was discovered.

Over the course of the 20th century, China gradually developed its own capacities, and continuous Beijing/Washington espionage efforts read like John le Carré novels.

Perennial competition and conflict between the U.S. and China have also always involved a repertoire of methods and tools that have gone far beyond “spying.” From the 1940s into the 1970s alone, the U.S. refused to recognize the People’s Republic of China and made numerous efforts to severely contain the Chinese regime.

It did so by building and then generously sustaining military alliances with Taiwan, South Korea and a string of leaders in South Vietnam.

For its part, China pushed back against American efforts by developing its own team of countervailing allies, including North Korea.

Mutual espionage

Chinese balloons therefore must be assessed within the context of decades of mutual espionage and an awareness of the many storms in the overall U.S.-China relationship.

The tense history between the two countries belongs in an even broader domain: not just decades, but centuries of extreme conflict between competing empires.

The United States and China each have affinities with many preceding great powers, including Egyptian, Persian, Mongol, Gupta, Mayan, Zulu, British, French, Russian, German, Japanese and other empires. In their varied ways, all had appetites for expansion and power while also worrying about the appetites and power of others.

Historians of international relations who date back to Greece’s Herodotus have studied the complex interplay of perceptions and impulses driving the behaviour of powerful states.

Their observations routinely highlight tragic results. Centuries apart, Greece’s Thucydides and Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz, for example, each considered the risks and errors of judgments that emerged when shrewd calculations became infused with emotions — for example, when concerns about national security and economic opportunity intertwine with fear and greed, respectively.

The history of former great powers is therefore relevant to analyzing U.S. and Chinese behaviour.

Do earlier American actions in Vietnam and elsewhere have present-day counterparts in the intensity with which Beijing’s “aggression” is being met by the United States?

The Biden administration’s early national security proposals promised to “prevail in strategic competition with China or any other nation.” Blinken’s remarks on China have hinted at that intention to “prevail.”

In one major speech on China, Blinken said: “We will shape the strategic environment around Beijing to advance our vision for an open, inclusive international system.” Obvious follow-ups to such a statement of intent include the provision of nuclear submarines to Australia and an intensified defence relationship with the Philippines.

Do previous Chinese actions, like its 1970s support for the Khmer Rouge and its 1979 war with Vietnam, have ongoing resonance in its hard-nosed approaches to Taiwan and the South China Sea?

Xi Jinping may be echoing the American pledge to “prevail” when he vows to “press ahead with indomitable will, continue to push forward the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics and strive to achieve the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

More information will clearly be required to understand the motivations and implications behind the recent balloon and “aerial phenomena” incidents, but that information should be processed with both telescopic and wide-angle lenses.

Historians offer the longer lens when they contribute to the analysis, meaning the patterns of great power behaviour can be discerned over time — as if by high-level surveillance.

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Why Trump’s historic indictment won’t dampen his support



Donald Trump: polling suggests criminal charges won’t dampen his support

Donald Trump’s impending court case marks an historic moment in US politics. He will be the first former president of the United States to face criminal charges and trial by a jury. He and his supporters are already calling the case a political manoeuvre designed to reduce his chances in the 2024 presidential election.

The court case will affect his campaign but it will not exclude him for running for office next year. Early indications suggest that his political base will continue to rally around him. Within hours of the news, his followers were gathering outside his Mar-a-Lago home in Florida to express their support.

The indictment comes after a grand jury in New York agreed that there was enough evidence to charge the former president. The investigation, led by Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg, looked into the legality of hush money payments to former adult film star Stormy Daniels.

The exact nature of the charges will not be known until Trump is arraigned next week. According to US reports, he is likely to be accused of more than one count of falsifying business records (classed as a misdemeanour, a lesser crime in the US legal system), after Trump allegedly recorded the payment as a business expense. If found guilty, he could face a fine.

He might also be charged with breaking election campaign laws, which is a more serious felony offence and carries a potential prison sentence. Trump has denied any wrongdoing.

Any criminal charges, or even a jail sentence, would not restrict Trump from running for office under the US constitution. He has previously stated that he would do so even if he was charged. Historically, there are instances of individuals running for president while facing charges or even from a prison cell.

What may affect his chances is the amount of time that he will need to commit to dealing with the charges laid against him. To date, his campaign has been relatively quiet, but it will need to gain momentum in the lead up to the Republican convention in July 2024.

On March 25 and 26, Trump held his first campaign rally for the 2024 election at Waco, Texas. Despite predicting that he would be arrested, thousands turned up to show their support.

Claiming that the 2024 election would be “the final battle”, Trump criticised the prospects of potential challengers, such as Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, and stated that the investigation was like something out of Stalinist Russia. He told his supporters “from the beginning it has been one witch-hunt and phony investigation after another”.

Trump’s immense popularity with Republicans is unlikely to be damaged by any indictment resulting from the New York investigation. One poll showed that most Republicans believe that the investigation is politically motivated, while another indicated that most Americans think that Trump will be acquitted of the charges.

The Harvard/Harris poll shows that popular support for the charges is split along party lines – 80% of Democrats believe he should be indicted, while 80% of Republicans believe he should not. And 57% of Republicans think a trial could help Trump in the election run.

Republicans lawmakers have already come out in support of Trump. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said that the indictment was an “unprecedented abuse of power”. House Majority Leader Steve Scalise tweeted that the charges were “one of the clearest examples of extremist Democrats weaponizing government to attack their political opponents”.

Even Trump’s potential rivals for the 2024 nomination have come out in support of the former president. DeSantis said the charges were “un-American” and a “weaponization of the legal system”, while Pence called the indictment “an outrage”.

For many observers, the question remains: why does Trump still figure so highly in the Republican polls after everything that has happened?

A Harvard/Harris poll from mid March, shows that Trump has increased his favourability among Republican voters to 50%, giving him a 26-point lead over DeSantis, if the presidential nomination was decided now. Former vice president Mike Pence is a distant third with just 7%. A more recent Fox News poll makes the gap between Trump and DeSantis to be even greater at 30%.

Worryingly for Democrats, those polled of all political persuasions give Trump a four-point lead over Biden. There is a glimmer of hope for the Democrats, though, in that 14% of those polled were undecided on either Trump or Biden. It’s a significant number, and those individuals will be key to deciding who wins the election in November next year.

Trump’s immense popularity with Republicans is unlikely to be damaged by any indictment resulting from the New York investigation. This is because the Republican Party is still the party of Donald Trump. His base support has never fluctuated since 2016. Many of them feel he stands up for them when no-one else does.

His Republican opponents, such as DeSantis, are trying to outdo Trump at being Trump. But they are pale imitations, and Trump knows this.

Earlier this year, Trump told the crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference: “I am your warrior, I am your justice.” And they believe that. His supporters believe that he is the only person capable of protecting their values and way of life.

In a supporting speech at Waco, Trump-ally, Representative Marjorie Taylor-Greene said: “Trump is the man for the hour. He’s the only man who can take on Washington in the times that we live in.”

While the indictment might make some moderate Republicans rethink their loyalty to the former president, his base will back him to the bitter end.

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‘Let him go’: Biden calls out Russia over reporter spy arrest



President Biden called for Russia to free Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, an American citizen who has been accused of spying on behalf of the U.S. government.

“Let him go,” Biden told reporters when asked about Gershkovich’s arrest.

Russian state news agency TASS has reported that Gershkovich was ordered to be held in custody until May 29. He is spending his third day in Russian captivity.

Russia’s main security service, the FSB, claimed Thursday that Evan Gershkovich, a correspondent based in Moscow, had been trying to obtain state secrets.

The Wall Street Journal rejected those allegations, saying in a statement that it “vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter.”

A Russian district court in Moscow said Thursday that Gershkovich would be detained until May 29.

It is the first time an American journalist has been detained on accusations by Moscow of spying since the Cold War.

It comes a week after US authorities announced charges against a Russian national, Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, accusing him of being a Russian spy.

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How does Donald Trump’s indictment affect his chances of running for president?



Donald Trump has become the first U.S. President to be criminally charged

Former U.S. President Donald Trump has been indicted by a Manhattan grand jury after a probe into hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels.

The adult film star maintains she had an affair with the former president, and was paid to keep it quiet. She said the sexual encounter occurred in 2006, a year after Trump married his current wife Melania, and over a decade before he ran for President of the United States.

While the payment was legal, it was allegedly recorded as a business expense, which is illegal in New York.

Daniels said the two had consensual sex.

Michael Cohen was Trump’s lawyer at the time, who made the $130,000 payment to Daniels in 2016, several days before the U.S. presidential election. He said he would “take a bullet” for Trump.

Two years later, he pleaded guilty to nine federal crimes including tax fraud, lying to Congress and campaign finance violations.

Cohen told CNN he was surprised about the timing of the indictment but “this is a long time coming.”

It means the former president will likely be arrested in the coming days. He will then enter a Manhattan courthouse, where he will be fingerprinted and have his mug shot taken.

“This evening we contacted Mr Trump’s attorney to coordinate his surrender to the Manhattan DA’s office for arraignment on a Supreme Court indictment, which remains under seal. Guidance will be provided when the arraignment date is selected.”


Alvin Bragg is the Manhattan District Attorney, who helped to sue the Trump Administration more than 100 times during its four-year term.

Trump has previously described the indictment as an attempt to “weaponise” the U.S. justice system.

In a statement, Trump’s lawyer said “he did not commit any crime”.

“We will vigorously fight this political prosecution in court,” the statement read.

What happens now?

The U.S. is fast approaching a presidential election, and Trump has signalled he will run for office again.

Many Republicans have swiftly defended Trump since the indictment came to light. This includes Nikki Haley, who is a current 2024 presidential candidate herself.

“This is more about revenge than it is about justice,” she tweeted.

Calvin Dark is a global affairs commentator in Washington, who said the reaction will be mixed among senior republicans.

“When it comes to Nikki Haley or former vice-president Mike Pence, they’re going to be an interesting situation.

“They’re going to want to use this to their political advantage to provide an alternative to many who might not want to nominate an indicted former president,” he said.

However, a criminal conviction would not prevent Trump from moving forward with his presidential campaign.

U.S. law does not stop criminals from running and serving as president—even if it’s from a prison cell.

“I think Ron DeSantis is going to play it pretty quiet. You might see a snide comment here and there. If you’re opponent is digging a hole, tell them to keep digging,” Dark said.

What does it mean?

Many U.S. conservatives believe the former president is being held to a different standard of justice.

Meanwhile, Democrats have viewed this through the lens of holding people in power to account.

“We are in unchartered legal and political territory,” said Bruce Wolpe from the U.S. Studies Centre.

“Trump has been telling his base that he’s done nothing wrong, and that he’s been persecuted politically.”


“His base is all in. This will not change Republican voter sentiment towards Trump as a political candidate for the presidency,” Wolpe said.

Trump is facing a string of other probes, including his efforts to undo the results of the 2020 presidential election, and whether he illegally interfered in Georgia.

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