The Chinese spy balloon that flew over the US last month is part of the continuation of a new spectrum of Chinese power projection abroad, and was meant to test responses by the West. More importantly, it was designed to gain strategic information and enhance Beijing’s espionage capabilities.
The embarrassment the affair has caused the US is intended to send a strong signal to the international community that China is now capable on all fronts, and that it is able to get away with it with no clear repercussions and deterrence.
The incident also aimed to make US President Joe Biden look weak and vulnerable, undermine trust in the US among its allies and further embolden anti-US actors. It was also meant to be a cheap, effective and strong psychological victory over the West and the US.
Beijing intended to show others that the US can be infiltrated by cheap and effective means, sending fear and a message of defiance and deterrence to other states.
China’s balloon-technology program aims to reap the benefits of its foreign intellectual property pursuit and dominance to further develop adversarial capabilities and seek strategic gains through an expansive espionage program.
China’s 14th Five-Year Plan for 2035 lists aerospace technology as a frontier of research, in which Beijing is deepening military-civilian collaboration to improve the nation’s military and economic strength, with its “centennial military building goal” by 2027.
The China Meteorological Administration last year had an annual budget of US$5.8 billion and is involved in “military-civil fusion” projects and collaborations with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
According to the Project 2049 Institute, the meteorological agency also has potential capabilities for military intelligence collection and surveillance.
Beijing’s aim is to militarize the use of high-altitude airships as part of a broader strategy for dominance in the near-space region.
China’s “2020 Science of Military Strategy” mentions the PLA expanding the scope of aircraft operating in near and deep space. Its aerospace strategy has undergone a transformation, where since the 1990s, the PLA Air Force has primarily based its strategy on “territorial air defense,” focusing on the aerial defense of China.
As changes in threats grew, the doctrine of ‘“integrated aerospace capabilities” was adopted, in which the administration of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) formally recognized “integrated aerospace capabilities” as a core PLA strategy.
The technological application through foreign derivation of know-how in extending the agenda of the PLA and the Chinese Communist Party exposed the risks of international commercial collaboration with Chinese companies on dual-use technologies, or technologies with potential military applications.
Beijing is increasingly using the tactic of deflecting any accusation or claim by the West, particularly the US, by engaging in “whataboutism,” responding to an accusation by proffering a counteraccusation.
However, when the US talks about putting guardrails around its relationship with China and protecting the rules-based order, Beijing would counter that the US wants to thwart its destiny of becoming a great power. The balloon saga marks a shift in Beijing’s approach, but one that signals a demise in its soft power sway.
Collins Chong Yew Keat provides analysis and opinion to international media on contemporary global and regional issues.
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