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Make no mistake, China’s cold war against the West is heating up

AP Photo/Liu Zheng
In this image made from video, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin gestures as he speaks during a media briefing at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs office in Beijing on Feb. 13, 2023.

What may well prove to be America’s most colossal intelligence failure in recent history was observed by the entire world last week, slow motion, and in real time.  

China’s high-altitude surveillance balloon, equipped with sophisticated antennas and other collection and transmission features, was permitted to continue “purposefully maneuvering” and loitering over America’s most sensitive nuclear and missile assets for almost a week — all in plain sight of a U.S. administration that consciously allowed it to happen. China may have acquired a greater quantity of critical intelligence during that period than it has gained from the combined work of multiple high-level human spies in recent years.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said that, at a minimum, the overflight “did a lot of damage” to U.S. national security: “Going over those sites … would cause great damage.”

China’s communist government officials and military planners no doubt are digesting the feast of sensitive information they easily gleaned about the location and functions of America’s “family jewels.” 

The date when the balloon was launched from China has not been disclosed, if it is even known by the U.S. intelligence community, but at some point when the craft was over the Pacific Ocean, its existence and its course toward the North American continent were discovered and then continuously observed.  

Yet, it was allowed to enter U.S. territorial airspace somewhere over Alaska’s Aleutian Islands on Jan. 28 and then was tracked as it traversed Alaska and Canada, the other partner country in the North American Aerospace Defense Command. The balloon re-entered U.S. airspace over Montana, where it was spotted and publicized by civilian photographers. Only then was its presence confirmed by the U.S. government, which offered changing rationales for failing to stop its passage.

At first, officials said destroying it in flight might endanger people or property on the ground, even though there had been ample opportunity to do so over U.S. territorial waters in the Pacific or over unpopulated or sparsely-populated areas of Alaska, Canada or Montana. Any potentially endangered people on the ground could have been warned to take temporary shelter as they would for a tornado or hurricane.

To make matters worse, officials asserted that ground safety was the paramount concern because the balloon evinced “no hostile act or intent” toward the United States. At a Defense Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) expressed the incredulity of others at the government’s claim: “Why wouldn’t a foreign military surveillance aircraft violating U.S. airspace inherently be considered to have a hostile intent?”

A second rationale for restraint was that allowing the balloon to continue flying enabled the U.S. government to observe its operation and ascertain what it was trying to observe and collect. The obvious answer to such seemingly naive speculation was that the balloon hovering over critically important strategic sites was seeking to scoop up everything it could get.  

Administration spokesman John Kirby has confirmed the administration knew what the spy balloon was looking at — but we let it fly anyway. The nature and purpose of three other recent objects (one over Canada) was not clear but, in an “abundance of caution,” we shot them down because of a possible threat to civil aviation.

The existence of so many hostile objects in U.S. airspace indicates the issue is broader than the fecklessness of the Biden administration. The Pentagon stated that retrospective examination of data revealed it had failed to detect three earlier balloons that either approached or entered U.S. airspace during the Trump administration and another under Biden.

Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of the Northern Command, said, “[A]dditional means of collection … made us aware of those balloons. … We did not detect those threats and that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out.” The administration has disclosed that the Chinese government has flown its fleet of spy balloons “over more than 40 countries across five continents.”   

Beijing clearly is confident of its ability to operate balloon flights that evade U.S. detection, paving the way for further intelligence adventures. It is a disturbing state of affairs at a time when China is expanding its formidable nuclear weapons arsenal and intercontinental ballistic missile capability.  

Another lesson for U.S.-China relations that should have been learned long ago is the futility of expecting that improved military-to-military relations — during which we sometimes treat the Chinese to close-up observation of our systems and capabilities — will create trust and enhance communications between our governments in a crisis situation.

Adm. Joseph Preuher, when he was commander of the Pacific Command, recounted to an Atlantic Council meeting in 1999 how he cultivated good relations with his Chinese counterparts so that “if the balloon ever went up” and a crisis erupted, he could pick up the phone and talk with his contacts to ameliorate the situation.  

Two years later, Preuher was serving as ambassador to China and the proverbial balloon did go up when a reckless Chinese fighter pilot collided with a slow-moving U.S. reconnaissance plane over international waters near Hainan Island. The pilot was killed, the damaged U.S. plane had to make an emergency landing on Hainan, and the furious Chinese government captured and held the crew and plane for over a week until it extracted two humiliating apologies from Washington.

Preuher broke out his Rolodex and called all his Chinese contacts. None of his calls was answered or returned.

This time, an actual balloon came down after long-withheld U.S. fire and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called his Chinese counterpart to keep the situation from escalating. But his calls were spurned and he experienced the same cold-shoulder treatment. Perhaps Beijing is waiting for another U.S. apology or two.

Austin and other administration officials repeatedly refer to China as America’s “pacing challenge,” conjuring up an image of a competitive but civil or even friendly rivalry, as in a race or athletic contest. They seem reluctant to label the Chinese Communist Party threat for what it is: hostile, menacing, existential. The reality that one of those floating objects over our country may one day do something more kinetic than harvesting our secrets could help close the gap in our understanding of China’s intentions. Cold War II has been upon us for some time.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags China aggression Chinese spy balloon new Cold War

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