14 February 2023

Inflated threat? Chinese spy balloons are a sign of American weakness


On the May 28, 1987, a light aircraft piloted by German citizen Mathias Rust took off from Helsinki airport. In his last radio communication, he told Finnish air traffic control that he was flying to Stockholm, yet not long after take-off he was spotted heading south across the Baltic before disappearing from radar. Finnish authorities feared the worst and began a search mission looking for the wreckage of the plane and yet found nothing. The next thing anyone heard of Mr Rust was when his light aircraft touched down in the middle of Red Square in Moscow. 

Both Soviet and Western authorities were baffled – how could such a small aircraft have avoided detection and made it all the way to the walls of the Kremlin unharmed? For the USSR it was a strategic disaster – a sign of a major security failure that showed that their inflated defence budget had been for nought. For the West it was a sign that the Soviet Union was perhaps more disorientated than they first thought – a picture of a waning superpower on its last legs. 

A similar sense of bemusement must surely have been felt in Washington earlier this month when a Chinese spy balloon was spotted flying over the continental United States, far from the Pacific Ocean where it was likely launched. And if leaders in the American capital were struggling to come to terms with how such a device could have passed over their heads, then there were most likely scenes of jubilation in the Beijing. 

Indeed, US policymakers will likely be channelling their inner Lady Bracknell: to lose one Chinese spy aircraft may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose several looks like carelessness. That multiple unidentified aircraft have now appeared above the continental United States is a catastrophe.

The flight of the Chinese spy balloon has triggered all the right questions in Washington – chief amongst them, how could this happen? Not just in the sense that a probe was able to fly over the continental United States, taking photos above military bases without some kind of a response, but also the question of how the geopolitical situation could have deteriorated so much that the Chinese Communist Party felt they were in a position to be able to do it.

This second question should certainly be occupying the minds of many more top US officials going forward. For the past decade, since the accession of Xi Jinping, Cold War rhetoric has been ramped up. Whilst many in Washington tried to find cause to blame Donald Trump for this, the reality is that he was simply reacting to the taunts coming out of Beijing. For to the Communist Party leadership, the US is on a downward trajectory, and now is their chance to uproot the international rules-based system.

Over the last few years, Chinese leadership has sought to exploit Western divisions – and the perceived unwillingness of the US to defend its position as the last superpower – to start building an alternate world model of its own. Chinese officials have been hard at work signing deals with countries across the Global South under the auspices of their ‘Belt and Road’ initiative – an international transport corridor that would allow China to export goods to the rest of the world in greater quantities across supply lines of their own making. 

This has brought China to America’s doorstep – with the Communist Party flexing their soft-power muscles in Latin America. Since 2001, China has become South America’s biggest trading partner, and Chinese companies have invested annually more than $17bn in the region. Equally, China has become the region’s biggest lender – with Latin American countries having taken more than $137bn in loans. China is in many regards parking the economic tanks on the United States lawn. 

Perhaps more alarmingly however, is China’s military presence in Latin America. The Chinese government currently has agreements with a number of countries hostile to the United States, for the basing of Satellite Ground Stations. There are already facilities for receiving data from satellites – or perhaps balloons – based in Venezuela and Bolivia.

Outside of Latin America, China has been working to construct a new alliance of disruptive powers set on overturning the existing international order. In February 2021, days before Russia’s escalation in Ukraine, Xi and Vladimir Putin signed a joint statement which claimed: ‘the new inter-State relations between Russia and China are superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era. Friendship between the two states has no limits’. In March of 2021, China and Iran singed a ’25 Year Cooperation Programme’ covering military as well as economic development. 

China see’s the decline of the US as a global player as a chance to hoist itself up. The flying of a spy balloon over US territory feels like a warning to the American establishment to say that they are no longer the only game in town. For too long US policymakers have buried their heads in the sand over the prospect of a new Cold War – yet now its will be difficult for them to deny it. 

One of the major developments of the midterm elections is the creation of a new committee in the US House of Representatives, headed by Congressman Mike Gallagher – the United States House Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party. The Committee aims to assess the threat from China, and to develop the means to respond to what is seen by many Republicans as growing Chinese aggression. The UK would do well to learn from this – as Britain is far from immune to the threat from China – and is perhaps even more vulnerable to a weakened United States.

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Robert Tyler is the Senior Policy Advisor at New Direction Foundation for European Reform based in Brussels.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.