China has accused the United States of “an obvious overreaction” and “seriously violating international practice” after US military jets on Saturday shot down its suspected spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina. This after it had loitered over the US, including sensitive national security sites, for more than four days last week. My reaction to this indignation? Poppycock! (China has claimed the balloon was for “civilian use” and to monitor weather, and that it only entered US airspace by accident.)
The history of China’s responses to US assets operating in international waters and airspace near mainland China strongly suggests, if the tables were turned, its reaction to a similar scenario would have been precipitous, crude and escalatory. Let’s review just a few examples: In late 2016, the Chinese seized an unmanned US Navy underwater vehicle in international waters in the South China Sea, just 50 nautical miles from Subic Bay in the Philippines, and hundreds of miles from China. (Subic Bay was home to the largest US naval base in Asia until disagreements over leasing costs led to a withdrawal in 1992; ironically, US sailors might soon return to the base following Manila’s recent decision to allow a greater, albeit rotational, US military presence in the Philippines as a counter to Chinese aggression.) The incident was widely believed to have been a message to President-elect Donald Trump, just two weeks before his inauguration and several weeks after he angered Beijing by taking a congratulatory call from Taiwan’s president. Beijing agreed to return the craft three days later, but never apologized and accused the US of spying.
Though still describing them as “infrequent actions,” the US Navy reported an uptick in unsafe intercepts by Chinese fighter jets last summer; in December 2022, a Chinese fighter jet flew just 20 feet in front of the nose of a US Air Force RC-135 surveillance plane carrying 30 crew over international waters in the South China Sea, forcing it to swerve to avoid a collision. This was just five weeks after the meeting between President Biden and President Xi in Bali during a G20 Summit – a meeting in which they pledged new mechanisms to stabilize the bilateral relationship. The most memorable and instructive example dates back to the presidency of George W. Bush. On April 1, 2001, two Chinese fighter jets harassed a US Navy EP-3 surveillance plane over international waters near China. One collided with the EP-3 and crashed. The EP-3’s pilot managed to regain control of his heavily-damaged plane and made an unauthorized emergency landing on China’s Hainan Island. The 24 US crew members were held for 11 days, and some were repeatedly interrogated before US officials negotiated their release.
Then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin laid blame for the collision on the US. Nearly two months elapsed before the two sides reached agreement for the return of the aircraft. Having removed and refused to return the plane’s hardware, software and communications equipment, the Chinese insisted the EP-3 be dismantled and transported by a third party at the US’s expense. Beijing also tried to charge the Bush Administration $1 million for costs associated with the incident, including expenses for detaining the plane’s crew. Washington countered with an offer of some $34,000 it said was a “fair figure” – money China refused – and never apologized. With these incidents over international waters in mind, it is not hard to imagine the Chinese military would have shot down an unmanned US balloon or other aircraft flying over mainland China without hesitation, regardless of any risk to Chinese citizens or property. Beijing’s extensive global media apparatus would promote claims that the incursion exemplified US double standards regarding violations of sovereignty, with this narrative also seeded widely across Chinese social media channels. Any planned visits to the US by China’s foreign policy chief, like Secretary of State Blinken’s now-postponed trip to Beijing, would have been outright canceled.
Had any damage or loss of life resulted when China downed the unmanned US craft, Chinese authorities would have quickly placed both blame and liability on the US. Protests would have erupted in front of the US Embassy and China’s Ambassador to the US swiftly withdrawn. So China’s protestations about the outrageousness of the US shootdown of a spy balloon flying over our sovereign territory seem a little rich, to put it mildly. One thing is clear: China has itself been “violating international standards” by aggressively asserting claims over international waters and airspace. China has violated international standards by setting up covert police stations in the US and other countries to monitor and harass Chinese immigrants. China has violated international standards in its systematic mistreatment of its Muslim minority. Do I need to go on?
But let’s take a moment to breathe and put the balloon incident in perspective. I’m not suggesting the US should turn the other cheek, not by any stretch. However, we all need to begin to better differentiate threats posed by various Chinese actions; US officials must calmly evaluate the situation at hand (or in the sky) and respond based on both the immediate risk and US strategic interests. I fear the current mood in Washington dictates that every Chinese activity is equally threatening. My first reaction to the Chinese balloon when it was identified floating over Montana was probably the same as yours: “Shoot it down, already!” But in my decades as a senior intelligence official, my role in such circumstances was to focus on the facts, not the outrage, highlighting the intelligence community’s knowledge – and the gaps in our understanding – and providing a measured, clear-headed assessment. In meetings probably held in the White House Situation Room multiple times over the past week, a senior intelligence official would have joined the US military, level-setting the discussion in this vein. So I’m inclined to buy the risk-benefit calculus that drove the decision to wait to shoot the balloon down until it was flying over shallow US waters where the risk posed by a large debris field was minimal.
Stepping back a bit, however, the uncomfortable fact is that the Biden Administration’s effort to set “guardrails” on its relationship with China is not working that well. This is mostly because China not only has failed to stop spying, stealing, and exploiting vulnerabilities in the US democratic and open-market system, but is becoming more aggressive than ever. But it is also partly because actions undertaken by the administration to hold China accountable for this behavior have threatened core Chinese interests. As the Brookings Institution’s China expert, Ryan Hass, recently put it during an interview on the German Marshall Fund’s “China Global” podcast,”‘establishing guardrails’ is neither strategy nor policy… and is lacking in ambition.” Clear boundaries need to be set with China; this is an opportunity for the Biden administration to work with Congress to articulate and implement a clear strategic framework to advance our broader global interests, including boosting current efforts to explain the Chinese threat to a skeptical global South. Another Chinese balloon traversing Costa Rica and Colombia in recent days provides a strong optic.
Without such a framework by which to measure and calibrate our actions toward China, we risk going overboard – inflicting significant harm to US interests, including undermining relationships with key allies and hamstringing benign US business activity with China. I understand why Americans were alarmed by the balloon, but there are much bigger threats posed by China. We should address the shortcomings this incident exposed – including what appears to be gaps in our air defense and detection systems that would have allowed us to shoot such a balloon down before it ever reached US landfall – but political one-upmanship on such a fraught and grave matter as relations with China is dangerous. If you listen closely, you can already hear the war drums beating, and I’m waiting for the hyperbole to reach new heights as we move closer to the 2024 election: who will be the toughest on China of them all? But let’s not let China-bashing become a new brand of McCarthyism, particularly when considering the already-dangerous rise in anti-Asian rhetoric and violence reported in the US in recent years.
Instead, let’s come up with a more strategic, measured plan to hold China accountable, but also allow room for needed dialogue. If we follow Beijing’s lead it will surely be a race to the bottom, making it harder to avoid what we all wish to avoid – military conflict with China.