Hard power replacing soft power: China’s spy balloon marks a new phase of big-power confrontation

The balloon incident is a brazen willingness by Beijing to flex its power outside its region, and to challenge the US at its continental base, magnifying its continuous attempts to expand its influence across the world through intelligence efforts targeting businesses, universities and other institutions.

Collins Chong Yew Keat Mar 03, 2023
#China; spy balloon (Photo: Twitter)

The Chinese spy balloon over the US has been a continuation of a new spectrum of Chinese power projection abroad and is meant to test responses by the West, but more importantly, on gaining strategic information and enhancing espionage capacities.

The balloon surveillance programme is part of a wider fleet that has spanned five continents. The US believes the suspected surveillance balloon project was being operated from China's coastal Hainan province and targeted countries including Japan, India, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines. Similar balloons had operated over North and South America, South East Asia, East Asia and Europe.

US intelligence sources have strong evidence to point out that the balloon programme is an aerial surveillance program run by the People's Liberation Army out of Hainan.

The huge embarrassment it causes to the US is meant to send a strong signal to the rest of the world that China now possesses almost limitless capacity to test and challenge the readiness and resilience of almost all nations on earth, and that it can get away with it pretty easily with no clear repercussions and deterrence.

It aims to make Biden look even weaker and more vulnerable, and weaken the US image among the allies and further embolden anti-US players.

It is also meant as a cheap, effective and strong psychological victory over the West and the US, and to use the counteraction of Washington in shooting it down as a pretext to frame it as an unnecessary inflammatory act over a “harmless and accidental” balloon misdirection.

Breaching America's backyard

The spy balloon saga has been part of a wider "vast surveillance programme" run by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, partly operating out of Hainan province on China’s south coast, as mentioned by Pentagon and US intelligence officials.

Beijing intends to show to others that the  US can be infiltrated by cheap and effective means, serving as an embarrassment to the West and sending fear and a message of defiance and deterrence to other states.

As it tries to project greater trust and confidence in a new China-led system, it seeks to weaken the sphere of West-based order and alliance by giving the message that the US is no longer invincible. America’s backyard can now be easily breached and if the US can be a victim of this move, then other players are a pushover. 

It fortifies the message and notion that the sphere of China’s reach and power is here to stay and that the world must accept the fact that China has awakened and will be the most serious challenge to US power and dominance since the great wars. It no longer is adhering to the principle of bidding time, staying low, and being patient, as its dwindling internal capacity and resilience no longer support a long-term and protracted competition and conflict with the combined staying power of the US-led West and the rest of the world.

Use of meteorological balloons

China’s balloon-technology programmes also highlighted the intent to reap the benefits of its foreign intellectual property pursuit and dominance, which is then used to develop further adversarial capabilities to seek strategic gains through the expansive surveillance and espionage programme.  

Most other states will not have the capacity to shoot down the balloon, and it can be used as a quick and short-term tool, apart from other capacities at its disposal.

Various Chinese government documents indicate that meteorological balloons are growing in importance to the PLA’s aerospace strategy. China’s 14th Five-Year Plan for 2035 lists aerospace technology as a frontier front of research where Beijing is deepening military–civilian collaboration to improve China’s military and economic strength, with its ‘centennial military building goal’ by 2027.

The balloons are used for military intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. The Financial Times has suggested, based on footage of the craft, that they could potentially carry warheads.

The  China Meteorological Administration (CMA) had an annual budget of US$5.8 billion in 2022, and is involved in "military-civil fusion" projects and collaborates with the PLA. According to the Project 2049 Institute, the CMA also has potential capabilities for military intelligence collection and surveillance.

Beijing’s aim is to militarise the use of high-altitude airships as part of a broader strategy for dominance in the near-space region.

The PLA perceives it as an essential part of the five-dimensional integrated battlefield of land, sea, air, space and electronic warfare, arguing that the near-space region is becoming another geostrategic domain where other players, particularly the US, are posturing. 

The science of military strategy 2020, the PLA’s military strategy, describes the PLA expanding the scope of aircraft to operate in near and deep space. Its aerospace strategy has undergone transformation, where since the 1990s, the PLA Air Force has primarily based its strategy on "territorial air defence", focusing on the aerial defence of mainland China.

As changes in threats grew, the doctrine of "integrated aerospace capabilities" was adopted, and the Xi administration formally recognised ‘"integrated aerospace capabilities" as a core PLA strategy.

The technological application through foreign derivation of knowhow in extending the agenda of the PLA and Chinese Communist Party exposed the risks of international commercial collaboration with Chinese companies on dual-use technologies or technologies with potential military applications.

It underscores the importance for governments, other entities and research institutions to undertake due diligence when they are collaborating or contracting with foreign entities.

Hard power replacing soft power

Japan announced that after they had re-analysed past cases of unidentified flying objects, they strongly suspected that China had flown at least three spy balloons across their territory since 2019. Taiwanese officials claimed that Taiwan has also been spied on by dozens of Chinese military balloons.

All these incidents highlighted an underestimation of China's surveillance capability - and the lengths Beijing would go to prove it. These acts that have violated international law and global order, have again been met with subdued responses and restraints.
States are too fearful to call out strongly against these measures and are further hampered by their economic ties with Beijing. Another factor remains that the “findings” and the conclusion about the intent of the balloon have been primarily from the US, which is then used as an excuse by the non-West and China allies that these accusations are laden with biases and hypocrisy.

Just like Moscow in justifying the war in Ukraine, and with the recent speech by President Vladimir Putin in defending Moscow and his own actions by pinning the blame on the West and the US as the warmongers and the main causes of the conflict in Ukraine, Beijing is using the same narrative in justifying its cause and course of the actions and manoeuvres taken to expand its global aim.

China's global reputation has already taken a nosedive over the years, exacerbated by the pandemic and the media antagonism toward it throughout the world, and this incident has sent a strong message to the rest of the world that there is no path in which Beijing is not at liberty and capacity to deliver, even at its own reputational and soft power expense.  

Little global outcry 

The lack of a concerted outcry and pushback from the global community exposed a glaring fragility of the rules-based international order in which a growing number of smaller states are slowly but surely being pulled into Beijing’s orbit, a growing testament to China's ability to deter many countries from criticising them, and creating a Beijing-centric order.

Beijing’s efforts to cement its soft power push since the 2008 Beijing Olympics have been sidelined by the succession of Xi, and China’s soft power influence as a result has undergone a one-sided transformational shift to a hard power one involving military might and economic coercion, and even blackmailing capacity.

In this balloon saga, the US has been accused of grossly overreacting, and Washington has also been blamed for actions of the same nature in targeting China in the past.

Every time Beijing commits an act that is rule-bending, controversial or law-breaking in nature, it often goes unpunished with no real consequences, which further emboldens it to continue the same defiant path.

Beijing's extra-regional muscle-flexing

The balloon incident is a brazen willingness by Beijing to flex its power outside its region, and to challenge the US at its continental base, magnifying its continuous attempts to expand its influence across the world through intelligence efforts targeting businesses, universities and other institutions.

While some analysts have theorized about the possibility of growing internal revolt and movements out to embarrass Xi Jinping and the top leadership with this balloon move, it is worth noting that each move by Beijing has its own meticulous details, intent and strategic purpose.

The US hoped to bring to China a new system and culture of democracy, freedom and law-abiding players that will further enrich China’s own progress and global purpose. Decades on, and with time and money wasted,  Beijing's aims are increasingly seen in Washington as incompatible with US hopes, values and global aspirations.

 But when the US talks about putting guardrails around its relationship with China and protecting the rules-based order, Beijing believes America wants to thwart its own great power destiny and will use this balloon incident as a convenient pretext. This balloon saga further signals a new big-power competition and conflict, in which the long-feared Thucydides’ trap is only a matter of when and at what level, not a matter of if. 

(The author is a strategic and security analyst who has worked with the University of Malaya. Views are personal. He can be contacted at collins@um.edu.my) 

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