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  Opinion   Columnists  12 Feb 2023  Manish Tewari | What did the balloon tell China about US?

Manish Tewari | What did the balloon tell China about US?

Manish Tewari is a lawyer and a former Union minister. The views expressed are personal. Twitter handle @manishtewari
Published : Feb 12, 2023, 12:55 am IST
Updated : Feb 12, 2023, 12:55 am IST

Why on earth would China fly a balloon into US territory?

United States Air Force shot down a Chinese balloon that had been drifting through US airspace. (Photo: AP)
 United States Air Force shot down a Chinese balloon that had been drifting through US airspace. (Photo: AP)

Last week, on the fourth of February, fighter jets of the United States Air Force shot down a Chinese balloon that had been drifting through US airspace. The discovery and the subsequent shooting down of the balloon had other inevitable repercussions including and not limited to the strategic arena. It compelled the US secretary of state Anthony Blinken to call off his first trip to Beijing.

The question, however, uppermost on everyone’s mind is that in this day and age of satellites and drones, why on earth would China fly a balloon into US territory?

For whatever “extraordinary” intelligence a balloon may or may not be able to collect, it constitutes a very obvious dare, because it would not only be a clear transgression of a country’s airspace but, more importantly, a blatant violation of its very sovereignty.

The Chinese, of course, dismiss the entire episode as a “weather ship” that had drifted off-course and accused the United States of being irresponsible. Chinese foreign office spokeswoman Mao Ning stated, “The Chinese side has repeatedly shared information on the unintended entry of the unmanned Chinese civilian airship into US airspace. I would like to stress that the US’s downing of the unmanned Chinese civilian airship by force is unacceptable and irresponsible.”

However l’affaire balloon raises deeper questions that have a material bearing on global dynamics that are in a state of flux since the February of 2022 when Russia decided to invade Ukraine.

It would be instructive to recall that, just three weeks prior to the Russian transgression onto sovereign Ukrainian soil on February 4, 2022, both Russia and China had inked a memorandum entitled “joint statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the international relations entering a new era and the global sustainable development”.

Substantive portions of Part-111 of the joint statement almost read like the declaration of a military alliance. “The sides believe that certain States, military and political alliances and coalitions seek to obtain, directly or indirectly, unilateral military advantages to the detriment of the security of others, including by employing unfair competition practices, intensify geopolitical rivalry, fuel antagonism and confrontation, and seriously undermine the international security order and global strategic stability. The sides oppose further enlargement of Nato and call on the North Atlantic Alliance to abandon its ideologised Cold War approaches, to respect the sovereignty, security and interests of other countries, the diversity of their civilisational, cultural and historical backgrounds, and to exercise a fair and objective attitude towards the peaceful development of other States. The sides stand against the formation of closed bloc structures and opposing camps in the Asia-Pacific region and remain highly vigilant about the negative impact of the United States' Indo-Pacific strategy on peace and stability in the region. Russia and China have made consistent efforts to build an equitable, open and inclusive security system in the Asia-Pacific Region (APR) that is not directed against third countries and that promotes peace, stability and prosperity...”

While China’s support for the Russian misadventure in Ukraine has been muted so far, it has not hesitated over the past few years to flex its muscles in its neighborhood whether qua Taiwan, India or its other neighbours in the South or East China Sea where it asserts it has historical territorial claims.

Catching up with the US has now been almost a Chinese fixation going back to the global economic meltdown of 2008 that incidentally followed China’s coming out debut in the form of the Beijing Olympics. However, flying balloons over US soil and testing its red lines is a very in-your-face provocation even by Chinese standards.

The Pentagon spokesperson, Brigadier General Patrick Ryder, claimed that the US military establishment was cognisant of at least four balloon flights before it detected the latest Chinese contraption. Three of these ostensibly occurred during the Trump presidency and one under the current Biden administration.

If this assertion is correct, then it goes to further establish that China is now willing to push the envelope even vis-a-vis the United States. However, given the large gap in the current military capacities of China qua the United States of America, it remains moot as to what China really hopes to achieve by such actions.

A partial explanation could be that, for the past one decade, since President Xi Jinping’s ascent to power, China’s belligerence has had a virtual free run without being proscribed in any effective manner whatsoever. Its aggressiveness in the South China Sea, its ringfencing of Hong Kong through a new security law, its foray across the Line of Actual Control with India and its opacity in the initial weeks of Covid-19 have at most been met by proforma condemnation or individual responses from the people of countries aggrieved by its actions.

Perhaps emboldened by the US preoccupation once again with Europe and Nato that, in addition to being a military alliance, it’s also one of the pillars of the Anglo-Saxon civilisational construct, the Chinese may have decided to map the limits of US’s tolerance almost as a war game would do.

A purely defensive reaction by the United States in only neutralising the balloon may actually validate the Chinese thesis that the US is risk-averse. After the twin involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan it does not have the appetite left for a sustained confrontation. Whatever energy it has left is already being consumed in Europe.

While Russia keeps the battle of attrition in Ukraine on a slow burn, thereby absorbing the strategic and tactical attention of the US and its Nato allies, China probably feels it has the space to test its own strategic doctrines. A task that may well be going according to what the Chinese may have diagrammed as the trajectory of a US response to such a provocation. All this again portends that the shifting sands of the global strategic balance may actually be in a deeper churn than what is discernable on the surface.

As an aside, what if a similar Chinese balloon is found floating over India and the Chinese claim ownership of it stating it is a meteorological manifestation for plotting weather patterns when clearly it appears to be an intelligence gathering operation? Would the government of the day have the gumption and should it put a missile through such a contrivance in the first place? Strategic thinkers both inside and outside government would be well advised to collectively put on their thinking caps.

Tags: manish tewari, balloon, us air force