• Sat. Apr 1st, 2023

China’s spy balloons have sparked a diplomatic firestorm with US

ByGurinderbir Singh

Feb 19, 2023

Inherently explosive? Or just a load of hot air?

Beijing’s brazen bid to send a spy balloon over some of the US’ most secret sites has sparked a diplomatic firestorm. But strategic analysts are struggling to come to grips with what it all means.

It was just a balloon.

It was filled with helium (it’s not as flammable as hydrogen).

It carried an enormous array of electronic sensors, transmitters and solar panels.

But could Beijing have anticipated triggering an almost Pearl Harbor level of outrage from US politicians, pundits and the general public?

“We have to consider non-intelligence related reasons for doing this,” argues former CIA senior analyst John Culver. “I mean, it could have intelligence benefits. But there’s always also a political dynamic with China.”

It’s not just about the balloon.

It’s about what it symbolises.

On Saturday, February 4, the suspected Chinese spy balloon was shot down off the US Atlantic coast. It had come to public attention three days earlier after a resident of Montana noticed it passing overhead and posted footage to YouTube.

It was the first time in the history of the US-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) – established in the Cold War against the Soviet Union – that it had actually shot anything down.

Three other balloons have also since been downed over Canada and the US amid widespread public outcry. Though their origins are much less certain.

At first, Beijing appeared dismissive. Then it turned belligerent.

“This stark fact tells us a lot,” says Foreign Policy analyst Howard French.

“Whether by outright calculation or inattention, the Chinese state-led by President Xi Jinping- felt no need to conceal an information-gathering operation as bold as this nor even to prepare a cover story that ordinary people would be comfortable delivering with a straight face. Instead, Beijing’s response was shoddily improvised, confused, and risibly untrue.”

This, adds Australia’s Griffiths Asia Institute analyst Peter Layton, has profound implications. “The balloon saga has also revealed that, in a crisis, China may be unable to adequately manage a fast-developing situation. The party apparatus may be good at implementing detailed long-range plans, but less adept at managing problems that arise quickly.”

Spies, lies and ‘striking back’

“I think the atmosphere has degraded to the point where we could have a crisis at any point,” Culver told the Intelligence Matters podcast.

“And I think the balloon incidents over the last week or so have really underscored the nature of the political environment for a major crisis with China.”

It’s a crisis Beijing, at first, appeared eager to avoid.

On February 3, its foreign ministry said it “regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace”, insisting the “civilian research airship” had been blown off course.

Then, after it was shot down on February 4, Chinese officials began insisting that the US was “overreacting”.

But, by Wednesday this week, Beijing was threatening to “punish” Washington for sending 10 balloons over its territory in the past year. It offered no evidence supporting this.

“China is strongly opposed to this and will take countermeasures in accordance with law against relevant US entities that have undermined China’s sovereignty and security to firmly safeguard China’s sovereignty and legitimate rights and interests,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said. He added that Washington must “stop smearing and attacking China and stop misleading the US public and the international community. China reserves the right to further respond if necessary”.

Wang did not detail how China’s sovereignty was impacted by the shooting down of one of its balloons by an F-22 Raptor stealth fighter during an unauthorised flight through US sovereign airspace.

But “sovereignty” may be the keyword, Culver believes.

“The US flies a lot of intelligence collection on China’s periphery, especially off their east coast,” he said, adding this does not breach China’s 12 nautical miles (22km) territorial limit as defined by international law.

“But it’s long been a sore point, and they had no means to reciprocate. So I wonder if the idea about sending high-altitude balloons over the United States wasn’t in and of itself something that would have been attractive to them. They’ve always had the desire to be able to strike back. Not in a kinetic sense, but to conduct surveillance and then see how we feel about it.”

Of balloons and international boundaries

“I think, somewhat perversely, the fact that China’s flying balloons over the United States is probably popular in China,” says Culver. “They take the high ground that the US conducted a violent act against a peaceful balloon.”

Beneath his argument is the continued rejection by the West of China’s arbitrary claim to ownership of almost the entirety of the East and South China Seas. Its Asian neighbours refuse to surrender their territorial rights. And a United Nations court of arbitration has rejected the claim as baseless.

On Monday, China’s Foreign Ministry attempted to link 657 ship and aircraft movements in these waterways last year, and another 64 in January, to the balloon drama.

Such “freedom of navigation” exercises through these air and waterways regularly trigger an angry response from Beijing. For example, an Australian P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft was involved in a dangerous interception over international waters in the South China Sea last year.

But how high national territorial limits extend upward is less well defined. So far, air traffic control goes only as high as commercial airliners fly.

Had Beijing intended to use the high-altitude balloon to spark an international incident, Lowy Institute non-resident fellow Bonnie Glaser says Beijing would have exploited this legal “grey zone”.

“Chinese interests would have been better served If they had said that this area of what we call near space below outer space, and above territorial airspace, really doesn’t have clear international law that guides it,” she told the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

“China could have said, ‘yes, we were flying some balloon to collect information. And our two countries and other countries that use near space should sit down and discuss the possibilities of rules and laws that would guide usage of that space’. But that’s not what the Chinese did.”

The many faces of Xi Jinping

Months of delicate diplomatic horse trading evaporated when the balloon appeared. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken immediately cancelled his highly symbolic visit to Beijing.

And Chairman Xi’s much-publicised desire to stabilise the relationship with Washington was blown out of the sky,

“Social media’s meme machine has exploded, Sinophobia has reared its head, and Washington’s effort to constructively (and quietly) manage its relationship with Beijing has become much more complicated,” says the Head of Navy Research for the Royal Australian Navy, Dr Elizabeth Buchanan.

US Congress has since unanimously condemned the Chinese Communist Party for a “brazen violation of United States sovereignty”. And several Chinese research groups and businesses have been sanctioned for involvement in the balloon’s construction.

“China penetrating US airspace is a tangible security issue that Americans can grasp – unlike, say, nebulous cyber attacks or coercive economic measures – challenging at once US assumptions of its isolationist existence, while triggering some anxieties of another 9/11-type shock,” Dr Buchanan writes for the Lowy Institute.

But Griffith Asia’s Peter Layton says the chaos and confusion also reveal much about Beijing’s mindset.

“The Chinese Communist Party doesn’t appear to mind irritating other countries,” he writes in The Conversation.

“Much of what the spy balloons are doing can just as easily be done by surveillance satellites, of which China has some 260 in orbit. In contrast, the balloons are inherently provocative.”

“The great hopes that post-COVID China would shift from the wolf-warrior diplomacy of the past several years to become a more responsible member of the international community seem dashed,” Layton adds. “Looking forward, China seems set on “pushing the envelope” in a future where it is increasingly bellicose.”

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