AFTER the Bali talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Joe Biden last November, there was talk of an easing of tensions in US-China relations in the months ahead. The Chinese were readying for the first visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken this month. And then came the incident in which the US shot down a high-flying Chinese balloon which it said was being used for surveillance. It is difficult to understand why the Chinese have sought to use this dated technology for spying. China has a sophisticated satellite network to spy on the US. But it is believed that Beijing, like the US, is experimenting with other uses such as means to learn about the characteristics of the US air defence network as well as an inexpensive way of gathering communications intelligence.
There is little doubt that the incident will be used by the US to keep together its allies and friends who are sometimes reluctant to call out China’s misbehaviour.
China took the line that this was merely a weather balloon blown off course and sacked the head of its weather service. But it did not immediately notify the US, which now says that it has been tracking these surveillance efforts powered by balloons for some time.
China has now doubled down on bluster, declaring that the US had overreacted and ‘seriously violated international practice’ and that Beijing reserved ‘the right to use necessary means to deal with similar situations.’
The US could hardly have ignored the massive (61-metre long) balloon making its way across its continental expanse and hovering over a state which houses key parts of the US nuclear arsenal. Incidentally, in January 2022, a similar balloon was spotted and photographed over the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. In recent days, two more unidentified flying objects have been shot down over Alaska and Canada.
According to a State Department official, China has ‘overflown these surveillance balloons over more than 40 countries across five continents.’ A high-flying U-2 aircraft photographed the balloon closely and found that it had solar arrays and multiple antenna, including one that could pinpoint communications. More details will emerge as the US analyses the debris it has recovered.
The list of Chinese companies that have since been sanctioned by the US provide clues to the balloon’s capabilities. Among them is the developer of an airship designed to fly higher than an aircraft and a holder of a patent for controlling aerial vehicles with satellites and AI.
The USAF is also interested in near space (15-80 km above the earth) as part of its anti-missile defences, and its role in communications, data relay, surveillance and intelligence. The balloon’s use is seen as part of the effort to fill the gap between aircraft and satellites. At one level, the Chinese behaviour was inexplicable. At another, it wasn’t. The Chinese have been known to conduct these provocations at key moments of diplomacy, hoping that the other side will ignore them for the sake of good form. In 2013, on the eve of Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India, they established a blockade at the Y Junction in the Depsang Bulge and only lifted it when India threatened to cancel the visit. In 2014, even as Xi Jinping was visiting India, the PLA was trying to build a road to a high point on the Indian side of the LAC at Chumar in Ladakh.
But the Indians, and now the Americans, decided to publicise the incidents and the Americans shot down the balloon and are now gathering its debris from the shallow waters off the US. Washington hopes to use the balloon episode to expose China’s usual dissembling tactics and seeks to do so with hard evidence.
Perhaps the most damaging aspect of the balloon incident for China is that it has drawn the attention of the average American to its tactics. A spy balloon hovering over the heartland of the US has caught their attention as nothing else would have done.
After hauling China over the coals, the US is likely to give Beijing a way out by claiming that Xi Jinping was personally not aware of the operation. It is unlikely, though, that such a brazen intelligence venture would not have had his clearance. In 2014, when the Chumar incidents occurred, Xi initially promised to pull up the PLA, but a deal was reached only a week after his return to Beijing.
The Blinken visit has merely been postponed and this could be taken up again, though valuable time will be lost since China will be preoccupied with its annual National People’s Congress session and the changeover to a new government that will include a new Prime Minister. But the balloon episode will give the US a bit of a psychological edge when the dialogue resumes.
Notwithstanding the enormous strength of Chinese manufacturing that makes it the largest trading partner of most of the world’s nations, the US believes that China has shot its bolt. In his recent State of the Union address, Biden boasted: ‘Before I came to office, the story was about how the People’s Republic of China was increasing its power and America was failing in the world. Not anymore.’ He said the US wanted a competitive relationship with China, but ‘as we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did (referring to the balloon shootdown).’
Today’s era is not just about winning hot wars, but also information, cognitive and public opinion wars. There is little doubt that the balloon incident will be used by the US to keep together its allies and friends who are sometimes reluctant to call out Beijing’s misbehaviour.
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