Why Did China Send A Balloon?

(MENAFN- Asia Times)

Now that the Great Balloon Panic of 2023 has passed us , it is high time to address the context of why the Chinese balloon (which is actually an endoatmospheric satellite) graced our nation's woefully open airspace in the opening days of February.

The event likely occurred because Beijing's leadership was trying to figure out just what the hell is going on in the government of the United States. As someone who lives here, I don't know, either. In the eyes of much of the rest of the world presently, America's leadership does not appear very stable. Nations are scrambling to get readings on what's happening within our borders so that they can make informed strategies.

Frankly, as a geopolitical analyst, I'm surprised that events like the Grand Chinese Balloon Escapade aren't more commonplace. After all, China is the United States' number one strategic rival. according to multiple high-ranking US military officials, China and the United States will be at war with each other as early as 2025!

These prognostications are likely truer than most are willing to acknowledge – but in acknowledging these concerns publicly, US military officials may have prompted such reckless behavior from China.

From new world order to world gone mad

The days of things being relatively contained in the Sino-American relationship are at an end. A new world order is being birthed before our eyes. In this new world order, the United States is no longer the dominant player. The world does not march to our drum. And other powers (like China) will compete with us for control. Those other powers may even win.

As this competition becomes more pronounced, with the United States generally being seen as a great state in decline and China in the ascendancy, Sino-American relations are about to take a darker turn than what we had previously experienced since the Nixon Administration accepted Mao Zedong's offer to embrace China as a trading partner.

Remember the old axiom,“To preserve peace, prepare for war.” China, like the United States, is a great power and is doing what all great powers have done since the dawn of history: preparing for peace to preserve security at home.

That the Americans have fed this particular beast through generous trade deals, information- and technology-sharing agreements and territorial concessions only makes the situation more unbearable for the Americans. This is especially so because at least some of our leaders recognize just how much of a self-inflicted wound to America's continued global dominance China's rise is.

Sadly, there's no going back to the way things were.

Point of no return

China's rise is real. China will use its considerable power to reshape the international order as China's autocratic leaders see fit.

Beijing has converted its enormous wealth into an expanding, modern military. That military is designed to box the Americans out from what Beijing views as its sphere of interest in the Indo-Pacific while possessing the ability to crush whatever regional rival – such as Taiwan, or possibly even Japan or India – China's leaders think they need to defeat.

China's goal is to create for itself a regional hegemony that it can then use as a base from which to push its growing military might farther out. It seeks to do this through unconventional means – although Beijing will use force in specific instances, such as Taiwan, if necessary.

Of course, all major powers have such objectives.

The Russia-Ukraine factor

But the recent comments by US military leaders about the likelihood of a war with China by 2025, along with America's extreme support for Ukraine against nuclear-armed (and China-allied) Russia, likely precipitated the present crisis with China. Consider this: At the same time US leaders are talking about war with China, Western leaders have been courting nuclear war with Russia over Ukraine.

What's more, those same American and NATO leaders have been talking publicly about overthrowing Vladimir Putin and dismembering the Russian Federation into its constituent parts.

To the Chinese leaders, who are the least emotionally involved people on the planet (save for their obsession with Taiwan), the Americans appear to be unhinged. It is likely that Beijing is attempting to discern if the recent comments both about nuclear war with Russia and about conflict with China in the next two years are merely posturing or something more.

For Beijing to learn this, they needed detailed signals intelligence of the kind that spy satellites and balloons can only provide.

More than a balloon

Consider this: The Chinese military has operated such endoatmospheric satellites over the hotly contested South China Sea for years. These balloons are cheap but effective tools for surveillance– and targeting. They are used by China to track US Navy warships transiting the South China Sea. The surveillance equipment is provided by China's major technology firm Huawei.

To protect iits own wounded political image at home, the Biden Administration has since released information that China launched three similar balloons into the United States during the Trump Administration and the forty-fifth president did not respond. This behavior in the context of great power rivalry really is nothing new.

The recent comments by the American officials are clearly concerning to China. Given the trajectory of the Chinese spy balloon, it is obvious that it was surveying America's nuclear weapons arsenal. Plus, the altitude of the Chinese balloon gave it clear line-of-sight to sensitive US military satellites operating in low-Earth orbit. Beyond that, the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah – Area 52 – is the home of America's hypersonic weapons tests.

Given China's clear supremacy in hypersonic weapon technology, all these points of interest were likely the targets of the Chinese intelligence collection mission. They want to know if America is actually going to war, and if so war against whom and how China will be impacted by it.

This event was a nuisance and a terrible failure in deterrence on the part of the Biden Administration. The infernal balloon should've been shot down when it was over the Aleutians, not after it had traversed the whole North American continent.

The spy balloon's presence over American skies was not, however, the end of the world.

Standing ready but being responsibl e

America must be vigilant awaiting the time when China seeks to upend the international order by force – which I believe it will. But Washington must balance that need for vigilance with the responsibility to maintain stability as best as it can – especially at a time as critical as the one we find ourselves in.

The last thing we need to be doing is picking fights with nuclear-armed Russia and China simultaneously. Washington must prepare for war without courting it. It is time for Americans to recognize the new geopolitical moment we find ourselves in and to recognize that the Chinese actions, while disturbing to the domestic peace, are normal in the context of great power relations.

We will do similar things to China and they will become angry at us for that.

America must do a better job of defending its airspace and deterring future behavior without escalating into the irrational area we all seem heading toward on this subject.

Finally, Americans must recognize that, as we are a great power, our behavior and our words affect the world. We should not be surprised when the world reacts to what we say and do, any more than our rivals should be offended when we respond to the questionable things they do and say.

Welcome to great power competition in the twenty-first century. Grin and bear it.

brandon j weichert is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower, The Shadow War: Iran's Quest for Supremacy (both Republic Book Publishers), and Biohacked: China's Race to Control Life (Encounter Books). He can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.


Asia Times

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