TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was preparing to visit Beijing to meet the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) top foreign policy official Wang Yi (王毅) on Feb. 1st, a massive Chinese spy balloon was spotted over sensitive military bases in Montana. It quickly became a media sensation.
Beijing was clearly embarrassed, and after initially denying it was theirs, later claimed it was a weather balloon blown off course. The Biden administration was also embarrassed, with many wondering why they hadn’t shot it down over Alaskan waters days earlier.
The press regularly described it as having a payload the size of three buses, and the Pentagon allegedly decided to wait until it was over the ocean before shooting it down to avoid risk to people on the ground. On February 4, an F-22 shot it down with a missile.
All indications were that Beijing had been anticipating the Blinken visit as part of a recent shift towards dampening hostilities at least somewhat on issues like semiconductors, so questions were raised about the timing of the surveillance craft’s visit. There was considerable speculation that either someone in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) intentionally sent it to sabotage U.S.-China relations, or that someone from a faction hostile to Secretary-General Xi Jinping (習近平) sent it to embarrass him.
Suddenly UFOs were everywhere
However, it was soon announced that there had been several previous incursions in U.S. airspace going back to the Trump administration. This meant that more likely the balloon was launched on a pre-arranged schedule unbeknownst to Wang or Xi.
Since then, it has been announced that similar flights have happened over dozens of countries on several continents, making that explanation even more likely. Taiwan has spotted dozens in its airspace alone.
Public anger in the U.S. meant that Blinken was obliged to cancel the trip. Initially conciliatory, the Chinese side reacted angrily to the shooting down of their aircraft and claimed the right to do so in the future if it happened over their territory.
Then things got even worse. Over the last week or so, three smaller Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) have been shot down over the U.S. and Canada.
Then China claimed to have also spotted a UFO over Qingdao. They also shot it down.
Things have gotten so out of hand that the White House had to state ‘there is no indication of aliens or extra-terrestrial activity.’ Phew. Wouldn’t want to add interplanetary tensions to the mix.
There are two concerns going forward, one short-term and the other long-term.
Avoid disunity and distraction
The short-term concern is disunity and distraction. When the story broke, Republicans in the U.S. rightfully raised questions about why the administration waited to shoot down the spycraft, why previous ones hadn’t been taken down and kept secret, and how was it that data on previous sightings during the Trump administration are being unearthed now.
Those were all reasonable questions that an opposition party should be pressing for answers to. The Chinese, however, do work hard to exploit political divisions for their own benefit, including in order to draw attention away from their own misdeeds.
Briefly, it looked like that was going to happen, whether by Chinese design or not: There was talk by Republicans in the House of passing a partisan resolution condemning the administration over the issue (and, of course, to make Democrats look bad). Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed in keeping the focus on what mattered, and the House in the end passed a unanimous bipartisan resolution condemning the real culprit: China.
As this crisis continues, keeping that focus is important. More distractions could be on the horizon.
Faced with public pressure, the Biden administration decided to adopt a “shoot them all down” approach. There is a risk in that strategy, though.
What if one or more of those UFOs turns out to be harmless and civilian? If they recover the wreckage and it turns out it was a high school science project, for example, the headlines attacking the administration will be merciless.
That could turn into a distraction. Right now there needs to be a substantive discussion on what to do going forward, including on what to communicate to China in terms of guardrails and how to handle situations when they are violated.
That discussion also needs to be had in Taiwan. The military says all options are on the table, and after embarrassing incidents involving Chinese drones over Kinmen, they started shooting those down.
Now we find out that dozens of these spy balloons have been flying overhead unmolested in the past. Taiwan needs to set out clear guidelines and policies, both for clarity at home and for the PLA.
This brings us to the longer-term concern.
Blinken proved right on the need for guardrails
The irony in this downward spiraling of relations between the U.S. and China is that this accident derailed a meeting that Blinken had hoped would set guardrails to avoid precisely this kind of situation. His concerns have been proven justified, and they’re set to only get worse unless steps are taken.
I don’t think Xi knew about this particular flight, but as chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) he almost certainly knew about — and authorized — the program. He may have gotten caught off guard that this blew up so publicly now, but he bears responsibility for a program so egregiously in violation of sovereignty that it was bound to happen sooner or later.
Worse, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The U.S. military, with a lot of experience going back to the Cold War, is very cautious now about avoiding accidents that could cause damaging international incidents.
In the early days of the Cold War, the newly mighty, massive, inexperienced, and often arrogant U.S. military stumbled from incident to incident. Over time, however, it developed the experience, the protocols, and foresight to avoid such incidents as much as possible — though on the scale it operates it remains a possibility.
Taiwan is operating on a much smaller scale and is very sensitive to the problem. An incident could set off internal nationalistic pressure inside China that could trigger a bigger conflict, and the Taiwanese are very well aware of the risks.
The PLA isn't prepared for its growing role
As the size of the PLA balloons and grows more active, the chances for unwanted incidents will continue to grow. Like America’s early days as a superpower, the Chinese aren’t experienced, lack protocols, and are also arrogant.
It is also communist in structure, with decision-making powers concentrated in the hands of a very small number of people, who will make errors in judgment. Those below them actively avoid anything that might draw attention to themselves, and only follow orders no matter how misguided they may be — questioning superiors isn’t encouraged, even if the superiors make serious errors in judgment.
Worse, the PLA is almost actively courting unwanted international incidents with its activities around Taiwan and in the South China Sea. The PLA is almost in a permanent state of conducting war exercises around Taiwan, and a day without ADIZ incursions makes the news.
It doesn’t help that a lot of incidents that are happening are actually clearly intentional. For example, the Philippines have been under constant harassment, so much so they have filed nearly 500 diplomatic protests since 2016, including a new one involving lasers reported hours before the time of publication.
However, it is clear that Xi was embarrassed by the spy balloon incident, which damaged his interests and derailed his efforts to improve the relationship with the U.S. Beijing’s economy is still struggling post-Covid lockdown, the real estate business has frozen up, local governments are deeply in the red, debt has been mounting to unsustainable levels, and the U.S. has been increasingly cutting off key technologies.
With so much on its plate domestically and economically, Beijing has recently been backing away from its previous aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy and has been trying to partially mend some diplomatic relationships, including with the U.S. Partially being the operative word, they have no intention of having genuinely good relations, just taking the confrontation down a notch or two, especially on the economic front.
Potential silver lining
If there is a potential silver lining to this situation, it is that it underscores Blinken’s point on guardrails. This has been clearly demonstrated to Xi, whose own spy program has blown up in his face at a very unwanted and inopportune time and made the situation worse right at the moment he was trying to make it better.
Hopefully, this will lead to minds being concentrated even more clearly on establishing guardrails, rules of the road, and lines of communication. If the United States and the Soviet Union could accomplish it in the Cold War, there is hope the PRC will see the value in agreeing to something similar.
Establishing guardrails would be in the interests of both sides, and potentially the wider world at large, including Taiwan and the Philippines. Xi won’t give up on his imperialist aims in the region, of course, but some rules of the road may help avoid incidents that are unwelcome on all sides.