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Fallout for NZ from China surveillance balloon episode

OPINION: It’s a glimpse of hard power politics being rebooted in new era of US-China rivalry.

The downed Chinese surveillance balloon off the coast of the US state of South Carolina.

Nicholas Khoo Sat, 11 Feb 2023

Last Saturday, a US F-22 Raptor fighter jet fired a single missile that downed a Chinese surveillance balloon off the coast of the US state of South Carolina.

It was a spectacular end to what US officials claim was an audacious attempt by China to collect intelligence on sensitive military sites.

The facts first. The balloon was inadvertently discovered after the fact by the US Department of Defence.

Officials report that it entered US territory late last week, moving from the Aleutian Islands to Alaska, down through Canada into continental United States, in the vicinity of Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming.

Why focus on this area? Could it be because the US’s 400 Minuteman land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, of possible use in a Taiwan crisis, are deployed in missile silos in Air Force bases in Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming?

The Chinese Foreign Ministry claims a more innocent purpose. According to a statement on its website, the balloon “is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes. Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course”. It goes on to state: “The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure.”

Force majeure is a legal term denoting a provision in a contract that frees both parties from obligation if an extraordinary event directly prevents one or both parties from performing their contractual obligation.

International politics, not international law

How convenient. Unfortunately for China, international politics is not international law.

No US official or elected official can be seriously expected to believe China’s official assertions that the balloon inadvertently strayed into the US.

Moreover, who is the Chinese foreign ministry kidding? If a similar US balloon had flown over China, does anyone doubt it would have met the same fate?

The larger question concerns the fallout from this episode.

There are immediate and long-term consequences for US-China relations and nation states in the Indo-Pacific, including New Zealand.

In the short run, the momentum generated by China’s post-20th Communist Party Congress decision in late 2022 to improve relations with the US and its partners has ground to a halt.

In response to the balloon incident, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed his first official trip to China, which was scheduled for early February.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip postponed.

Diplomatic relationship will recover

Rest assured. The diplomatic side of the relationship will recover. Why? Because it’s in both sides’ interest to have a working relationship. And that is a positive development for us and our region.

The long-term effects are harder to judge. But a few observations can be made about espionage and China’s foreign policy.

Espionage will not end. Espionage is a fact of international politics. It even occurs between allies. In 2015, German intelligence discovered that US intelligence services were listening in on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone. It was a major embarrassment for the Obama administration but had little overall effect on US-German relations.

Espionage will not end. Espionage is a fact of international politics.

But espionage between great power rivals such as China and the US is different. This episode will give the espionage world a fillip.

Brazen

The US and its allies will be chilled at the brazenness of China’s recent attempt to collect intelligence. And, as a Five Eyes partner, New Zealand will inevitably be involved in any US effort to buttress operating procedures with its intelligence partners.

This episode also raises serious questions about China’s foreign policy. Why would China torpedo its recent efforts at diplomatic reengagement with espionage activity that is literally conducted in broad daylight? The most likely answer is the simplest – because it has succeeded in the past.

As one US official explained to the US newspaper the Washington Post: “What they’re doing is not new.” As the official notes, Chinese surveillance balloons have been sighted in the Pacific “multiple times over the last five years” in the Pacific, as well as in the vicinity of Texas, Florida, Hawaii, and Guam.

There we have it. The China balloon episode is a glimpse of hard power politics that never really left us, and which is being rebooted in the new era of US-China rivalry.

Nicholas Khoo.

Nicholas Khoo is associate professor in the politics programme at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He specialises in Chinese foreign policy, Asian security, and great power politics.

This content was supplied free to NBR. 

Nicholas Khoo Sat, 11 Feb 2023
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Fallout for NZ from China surveillance balloon episode
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