Feb 6, 2023 - Podcasts

Biden, Beijing and the balloon

The U.S. military on Saturday shot down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that had been flying over the U.S. since last week. China condemned the U.S. move and threatened "further actions."

  • Plus, tribal nations face threats to funding for food security.

Guests: Axios' Hans Nichols and Ayurella Horn-Muller.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, Fonda Mwangi and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Monday, February 6th.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what we’re covering today: Tribal nations face threats to funding for food security. But first, Biden, Beijing and the balloon. That’s today’s One Big Thing.

Biden, Beijing and the balloon

NIALA: The U.S. military on Saturday shot down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that had been flying over the U.S. since last week. It was first spotted above Montana Wednesday and was shot down off the coast of South Carolina. China condemned the U.S. move as an overreaction and threatened further actions.

Here with what we've learned in the aftermath and what this means for the US China relationship is Axios’ Hans Nichols. Hey Hans. Welcome back to Axios Today.

HANS NICHOLS: Hey, thanks for having me.

NIALA: First, what is this balloon? What actually was it for, because China's saying it was a civilian research airship that was just blown off course?

HANS: Yeah. What I love about sort of the first reference to this in some of the stories is that sometimes it's a spy balloon and sometimes it's a surveillance balloon. And that strikes me as a distinction without a difference, right? I mean, if the balloon is surveilling you, is it spying? I don't know, let's have a journalism seminar. The Pentagon does seem pretty confident that it was used for surveillance and that it was picking up information, across the United States. One thing that the balloon like this can get you other than a satellite is maybe slightly clear images, and they can loiter over a subject that it wants to photograph longer. So part of the sort of theory of the White House's case is that because it was shot down over water, the package will have survived a lot better, you know, if they recover this package, they could have a good.

NIALA: I just have to ask, how did this happen?

HANS: I guess we don't know that, right? I mean, we know that there have been a series of balloons that have been flying over the Pentagon has kind of been tracking these for some time now. The big question, or among the big questions I should say inside the administration is how intentional was this? You know, there's always a possibility, and some of this has come out in the reporting that we shouldn't assume that everyone in the Chinese government is always rowing in the same direction. Just think of our own administration, sometimes the Pentagon says one thing, sometimes the State Department says another.

And just give you a quick example. You know what, there was the embassy in Zambia a couple weeks ago, when you and I talked last Monday, the embassy in Zambia blasted Janet Yellen. And you know, there's a debate on whether or not that sort of blasting email was circulated at the highest level in Beijing and whether or not everyone approved of it. And the bottom line is you just, you don't know a lot of times. Uh, you don't know if this was intentional. You don't know if this was someone inside the Chinese government that wanted to sabotage this upcoming trip, the Blinken trip, which has since been canceled.

NIALA: Right, what other implications are there for the U.S. China relationship? The Blinken trip being canceled seems very significant.

HANS: Just kind of depends how mad everyone decides to get and it's easier to kind of contain and tamp down your diplomatic anger when things aren't in public. That is manifestly not the case here. The balloon was in public, it was in our public consciousness and now it's become deeply political. You've already seen House Republicans talking and Senate Republicans as well, talking about investigating this, criticizing and second guessing President Biden for not shooting it down earlier. And this lands in the middle of the State of the Union address, right, or a couple days beforehand.

So it'll be very difficult for the president to avoid addressing it and temperatures on all sides have been risen. And let's just say there are three sides here, so there's gonna be Beijing, there're gonna be Congressional Republicans, and there's gonna be the administration. They've all climbed up a little bit and gotten a little hotter. Now, if they choose to climb down, that just means they have further to travel and then gets more complicated.

NIALA: So Hans, given the basically three sides that we have here that you've just laid out, How will Biden handle this at the State of the Union on Tuesday night?

HANS: So this is where, you know, it's not fun to be a speech writer ahead of the State of the Union address cause you're making last minute edits. And you've been spending weeks, if not months, on this speech with a carefully crafted narrative, a spine running through it, and an event like this comes in and all of a sudden you may have to re scramble and reorganize the entire speech. Just that said, like sometimes it works, right? Last year, Russia invades Ukraine ahead of the State of the Union. And one of the president's more memorable lines was a response to that. And that is that, you know, directly telling the oligarchs he's gonna come after their yachts, he's gonna come after their assets. So there can be some serendipity for the speech writers, as well.

NIALA: Hans Nichols covers the Biden administration for Axios. Thanks, Hans.

HANS: Thanks for having me.

NIALA: In a moment: how cut-back SNAP benefits could hurt Tribal Nations.


Tribal nations face threats to funding for food security

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo.

More than 41 million Americans used SNAP benefits last year, that's according to the USDA. SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program was expanded during the pandemic giving qualifying households more funds for groceries. But now that extra assistance is being phased out across the country. And this is gonna have a major impact on tribal communities who are among the most vulnerable in the U.S.

Axios’ Climate Justice Reporter Ayurella Horn-Muller has been reporting on this. Hi, Ayurella.

AYURELLA HORN-MULLER: Hi Niala. Thank you for having me.

NIALA: Can you start by just telling us how SNAP benefits changed during the pandemic?

AYURELLA: So the pandemic saw an addition to SNAP eligible households for emergency allotments that allowed these households to receive an additional $95 or more in monthly benefits.

NIALA: And when we think about the Native American community, how essential are SNAP benefits to those communities?

AYURELLA: Tribes and tribal nations in particular are experiencing some of the highest rates of food insecurity, among populations in the U.S. So food insecurity is essentially defined as a lack of access to enough food for every person in a home or a household to live an active and a healthy life. A study published last year found that roughly 46% of Native Americans and Alaskan natives are thought to be food insecure. And most estimates say that around a quarter of Native Americans and Alaskan natives receive a form of federal food assistance. And for some tribal communities, that number can exceed more than 50%. We are hearing from anti-hunger activists that are forecasting that this evaporation of the expanded will have an impact on food insecure populations across the U.S. and that very much includes tribes. Although it's important to note that SNAP is not the only food assistance program used by tribes, but it is one of the main ones.

NIALA: Ayurella, we've been talking about the pandemic. What role has climate change played in food insecurity, especially when we're talking about Native Americans?

AYURELLA: Climate change is contributing to the loss of traditional food sources. So this is escalating food insecurity for indigenous communities, especially for coastal tribal nations like in Alaska, where subsident stores were hit hard by the remnants of a typhoon last year. Where warming ocean temperatures have decimated species of salmon in the Yukon River, where last year officials canceled crab seasons because of significant declines in crab numbers. So when we're talking about communities that are already dealing with high rates of food insecurity, compounding impacts like climate change, make existing issues with food accessibility, with food production, and with food utilization even worse.

NIALA: So what kind of changes are tribal leaders and activists that you've talked to, what are they advocating for here?

AYURELLA: So, going back to that stat I mentioned, how tribes are experiencing some of the highest rates of food insecurity for populations in the U.S. Those rates have to do with a number of things, but leading among them is above average unemployment and poverty affecting tribal communities. The fact that many reservations are in food deserts, meaning they don't have easy access to grocery stores, and those disparities are all systemic and can be traced back to historic events, which includes everything from federal policies that promoted land theft that led to the loss of food sovereignty as well as the destruction of many indigenous food ways like the North American Buffalo population, which the U.S. government played a significant role in.

So right now, what I'm hearing from my sources is that tribal leaders, indigenous policy experts, and food sovereignty advocates from tribal nations across the U.S., they are pushing for added provisions in the 2023 Farm Bill, as well as expanded regulations to federal food assistance programs and again, just going back to the point of when it comes to tackling food insecurity for tribal nations, it's not just about expanding existing federal nutrition programs, it's about strengthening food sovereignty.

NIALA: Ayurella Horn-Muller covers climate justice for Axios. Thanks, Ayurella.

AYURELLA: Thanks, Niala.

NIALA: That’s it for us today! I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.


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