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‘Spy balloon’ incident: Hidden dragon, crouching eagle?
Would grey-zone tactics like the spy balloon characterise China’s standard operating procedure in the future?
The recent incident of a Chinese ‘spy balloon’ sighted 60,000 feet over the skies of Montana in the United States (US) which was finally shot down by a missile from a US F22 fighter jet off the coast of South Carolina has left far too many questions unanswered. Some of the most prominent among them are: What was the real Chinese intention to fly a balloon over the US airspace in the immediate context of Secretary Antony Blinken’s high-profile visit lined up and the ever-looming context of fragile US-China relations? And, is the balloon incident reflective of China’s crossing a new threshold in its grey-zone activities? Yet another question concerns the delay in action by the Biden administration in downing the balloon leading Republicans to call it an ‘unpardonable show of weakness’ on the part of President Biden. While some of the clues emerging from the balloon’s debris have unravelled some information, the incident itself is a reminiscent of Cold War era tactics and is a pointer towards archetypical grey-zone activities which could characterise China’s standard operating procedure in the future.
China’s claims of the balloon being a ‘civilian unmanned airship’ which was conducting weather research is now only a red herring, especially after the emergence of the fact that the vessel was part of a much larger global fleet of surveillance balloons which covered more than 40 countries and five continents. The US State Department’s confident claims that the balloon “was clearly for intelligence surveillance and was likely capable of collecting and geo-locating communications” point to an incoming precipitation of crisis in US-China relations.
"While the Biden administration may retaliate politically and economically on a much larger scale than it has so far, as some of these steps will take time, there is a feeling that Beijing may have just pushed the envelope with an increasing perimeter of its grey-zone activities."
China is aware of the US’s heightened homeland security post the 9/11 terrorism incident including its superior air defence systems which could have picked up the balloon’s presence and position, especially as antennas have now been found in the balloon debris. As such, there is a feeling in some sections that the eagle is crouching: that the Biden administration may have feigned knowledge about the presence of the balloon and was compelled into action by the public gaze, public opinion, and political pressure by the Republicans. In order to dispel this notion, the Biden administration is planning steps to retaliate against Chinese entities linked to China that facilitated the balloon’s incursion into the US airspace, besides declassifying the information that it gathered on the balloon to add transparency value, allowing the Biden administration to justify even more stringent policies against China publicly as well as in the Congress.
Understanding Chinese perceptions
China’s internal discourse in light of the ‘spy balloon’ episode gives us a peek into the worldview of its strategists. There is a strategic awareness in Beijing that even as the war has raged on in Europe for over a year, the US may be turning its attention to the Western Pacific region where it is rebuilding its naval power, resuscitating alliances, and consolidating its position as the centre of its hub-and-spokes network in the Pacific theatre. The most recent basis for this assertion has been the renewal of the US-Philippines defence cooperation, which bolsters America’s defences with respect to Taiwan. It marks an important policy shift by the new Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., restoring balance in the pro-China tilt of the archipelago nation’s previous administration.
Japan’s return to geopolitics is another basis for such perceptions within China. Japanese PM Fumio Kishida’s warning that East Asia could suffer the same fate as Ukraine has led the nation to radically alter its security policy. On one hand, Japan is building domestic capabilities like incrementally increasing spending on defence, and planning for a missile arsenal to deter China, it is also expanding defence cooperation with the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Since Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, there has been a greater synergy between Asian nations and NATO as evidenced by the alliance’s summit in June 2022, in which leaders of Japan, Australia, and New Zealand participated for the first time.
Chinese strategists have red-flagged the Indo-Pacific concept, likening America’s approach of developing ties with China’s neighbours with an aim of creating regional blocs like NATO to contain China. Since the mid-1990s, generations of Chinese have been brought up on the “patriotic education” curriculum that in effect has demonised Japan’s occupation of China in the 20th century. Tokyo’s new military posturing is being viewed with trepidation in Beijing. First, it is believed that Japan will deploy missiles in bases closer to Taiwan. Second, there is a belief that Japan’s increasing defence capabilities in the region combined with America’s growing military power in the Western Pacific “may exceed China’s comprehensive national power” eventually. Importantly, Chinese commentators of a nationalist bent want China to “send a message” to the US-Japan combine. The big question is whether or not the ‘spy balloon’ episode was intended as a signal to America to please China’s domestic constituency.
"The ‘spy balloon’ episode marks a major inflection point in this approach, since the US, for the first time, has been at the receiving end of China’s grey-zone tactics."
A key feature of China’s aggression and expansionism has been the use of grey-zone warfare, in which a state escalates just below the threshold of conflict. For example, the first step in its expansion into the South China Sea was reclaiming reefs and then building military infrastructure there. Similarly, China has constructed ‘xiaokang’ villages near the Indian border in a bid to bolster its territorial claims. The ‘spy balloon’ episode marks a major inflection point in this approach, since the US, for the first time, has been at the receiving end of China’s grey-zone tactics. Such an approach poses a major dilemma for nations as to whether to react to such an infringement or ignore the violation and set a precedent. At a time when China’s President Xi Jinping has been telling his army to prepare for war, the world needs to be more vigilant about this new dimension in Chinese warfare.
On the heels of a big-ticket political event in the US like the State of the Union address, the ‘spy balloon’ row has expectedly ballooned into a controversy, which has cast a shadow on the US-China ties. However, the line taken by Chinese nationalist media is that while the US is augmenting its military capabilities in the Western Pacific region, it is using this incident to justify its build-up with the narrative that China is out to steal America’s secrets.
As for the US, the balloon incident may have exposed to the wider world some of the US domestic views on China. One of which is what Eric Schmidt, who led Google, has put it as, “many Americans still have an outdated vision of China.” However, a more politically divisive view is that “Mutual surveillance is a reality that requires a measured reaction. The United States uses a variety of tools, from satellites to intercepted communications to surveil China. It’s not unreasonable that China would attempt to do the same to the United States.” In between these two views is the realisation that the dragon’s hidden grey-zone tactics have reached the continental US more brazenly than ever before. As the global order dashes towards a more tech-centric order, it will relegate the traditional US homeland conception of security flanked by seas on its two sides. Finally, for the wider world as well as the political opposition in the US, the incident tested US’ resolve to retaliate against China in its scale, manner, scope, and impact. While the Biden administration may retaliate politically and economically on a much larger scale than it has so far, as some of these steps will take time, there is a feeling that Beijing may have just pushed the envelope with an increasing perimeter of its grey-zone activities.
Vivek Mishra (ORF) and Kalpit A Mankikar (ORF)
17 February 2023
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