The West must face down China and finally burst Beijing’s balloon
Whichever way one looks at it, a US missile shredding a Chinese spy balloon monitoring sensitive American military sites is a grim portent of escalation between opposed nuclear superpowers. It goes without saying that unless Western responses are based on sober, robust assessment of what led to this debacle, Chinese provocation will have achieved its purpose of sowing fear and discord.
If Xi Jinping deliberately authorised a spy balloon flight directly ahead of the (now postponed) visit of United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken visit to China, the obvious inference would make this a test of US resolve. But such a crude challenge has its own consequences. In such a situation, President Biden was honour-bound to destroy the intruder and to halt the Blinken visit. What else did Beijing expect?
Such a crass provocation would suggest that Beijing set little store by what the reduction in tensions Blinken’s visit was meant to achieve and either sought to have the opposite effect or seriously miscalculated. Neither is encouraging. What other such blunders might Xi unleash?
A more worrying notion is that Xi could have been unaware of the balloon mission. The Chinese chain of command is clumsy – perhaps someone overstepped. Or, more concerning, what if a belligerent faction within the Chinese state carried out the operation, seeking to further drive a wedge between West and East?
Both scenarios are dangerous. An unauthorised provocation in Taiwan, say, could easily turn that hotspot into a flashpoint. Unintended fatalities could trigger a war by accident.
The same danger applies to the possibility that the overflight was genuinely accidental. Such accidents are effectively grave acts of negligence, calling into question the competence of the CCP as a whole.
Regardless of the intention, this episode calls into question the prospects of authentic détente emerging from diplomatic discussion between the US, its allies and Xi’s China.
It is important to remember Xi’s order that his troops must be “ready” to invade Taiwan by 2027. While consistently claiming that use of force remains a last resort, Xi is driving forward military modernisation and making threatening deployments. Thankfully, lessons from Ukraine are likely to have decreased the likelihood of China launching an invasion which could bring at best a Pyrrhic victory. The CCP cannot gain from flattening Taiwan’s semi-conductor factories; it cannot withstand the impact of global sanctions imposed by the West and its allies. Enslaving 24 million Taiwanese is a blueprint for national disaster.
How far this reality has permeated among the CCP leadership remains, however, opaque. Though there are exceptionally bright people, they are currently purged and bullied in an echo-chamber for Xi’s dystopian visions of a “China Dream” and a “New Era”. The West should do more to encourage the more moderate elements.
China’s real weakness lies in its economic dependency. Determined Western leverage of economic realities can protect the norms and standards on which global peace and prosperity are founded. The West must be clearer as to what its red lines are. Give the CCP an inch and it could, quite literally, take a mile. Success can be measured by CCP ambitions being contained inside and outside China. Failure doesn’t bear thinking about.
Matthew Henderson is an Associate Fellow at the Council on Geostrategy