With Chinese Balloon, a Hidden Cold War Contest Drifted Into the Open

From a Washington Post column by David Ignatius headlined “With Chinese balloon, a hidden Cold War contest drifted into the open”:

Fans of the classic 1964 black comedy “Dr. Strangelove” will remember a moment when the mad doctor warns the president about an impending “mineshaft gap” between the United States and the Soviets. The very survival of the nation suddenly seems to depend on these heretofore irrelevant holes in the ground.

And now we have fears of the “balloon gap.”

Two weeks ago, it would have been hard to find anyone, even at high levels of the U.S. government, who knew much about China’s balloon-surveillance program. But it turns out that China’s effort has been underway for more than a decade. According to a declassified intelligence report issued Thursday by the State Department, it involves a “fleet of balloons developed to conduct surveillance operations” that have flown over 40 countries on five continents.

Politics always complicates intelligence and national security policy. But it’s had an especially unfortunate impact since the Chinese balloon was first sighted Feb. 2 over Montana. Because what’s emerging, in an especially frantic and destabilizing way, is a new front in a U.S.-Chinese confrontation that is nearing Cold War dimensions.

The zone of Sino-American confrontation keeps expanding: For more than a decade, space has been a domain for potential conflict, with Chinese and U.S. surveillance and attack satellites girdling the globe. Now we see the Chinese racing to exploit the domain of “near space” in the upper atmosphere — and the United States (with little publicity) is rushing along behind.

Let’s start exploring this balloon backstory by examining China’s efforts to develop this technology. They’ve hardly kept it secret. A 2019 article by two Chinese law professors on “utilization of the near space” noted that operations in this zone, above 18 kilometers (or 59,005 feet) “represent the future of activities in the airspace.”

The law review article cited a Shenzhen-based company called Kuang-Chi, founded in 2010, that had been a pioneer in balloon operations. “Kuang-Chi is developing helium-filled balloons and other kinds of lighter-than-air vehicles to furnish aerial surveillance, communication, near-space tourism, and wireless Wi-Fi transmission to remote areas,” noted the article in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law.

China’s CCTV captured Kuang-Chi’s 2016 launch of a balloon from New Zealand, posted on YouTube. The link was sent to me by the same amateur researcher who noted the 2019 law review article. He also sent a link to a 2016 story in China Daily about Kuang-Chi’s launch of a balloon capsule carrying a live tortoise.

Chinese military experts have publicly touted this near-space domain. A 2018 article in Liberation Army Daily retrieved by the New York Times argued that “near space has … become a new battlefield in modern warfare.” A 2020 article by two Chinese strategists, found by the Times, argued: “From the perspective of weapon performance, near-space weapons have incomparable advantages over traditional weapons.”

Balloon operations obviously make sense for the Chinese. The United States has military bases in Japan and elsewhere from which it can launch daily flights by P-8 and other surveillance planes that fly perilously close to Chinese airspace. China doesn’t have similar options.

The frequency of these American “Sensitive Reconnaissance Operations,” or SROs, has increased sharply from about 250 a year a decade ago to several thousand annually, or three or four a day, a former intelligence official told me. China wants to push back, and collect its own signals; it wants its own version of “freedom of navigation” operations. Balloons are a way to both show the flag and collect intelligence.

China has been seeking mastery of the space domain since its 2007 test of an antisatellite weapon. But this bid for space mastery has been confounded by the United States’ commercial satellite revolution. Elon Musk’s SpaceLink has roughly 2,500 satellites in low Earth orbit to provide broadband internet; Amazon’s Project Kuiper plans to launch about 3,000 of its own. Google’s Project Loon, launched in 2011, envisioned at least 300 high-altitude balloons in a similar venture. Such commercial ventures by U.S. companies could offer useful surveillance or attack platforms in a crisis. China may have feared that its high frontier was blocked.

Let’s look at another tit-for-tat motivation: China claims in its internal media that the Pentagon has aggressive plans to use high-altitude balloons, in projects such as “Thunder Cloud.”

It turns out the Chinese are right. Thunder Cloud was the name for the U.S. Army’s September 2021 exercise in Norway to test its “Multidomain Operations” warfighting concept, following a similar test in the Pacific in 2018, according to the Pentagon’s Defense News.

“We are looking to operationalize the stratosphere,” one of the Army officers involved in the Thunder Cloud exercise was quoted by a U.S. Army news release. A video shows the Army launching one of its potentially warfighting high-altitude balloons.

“It’s just phenomenal what we’re able to do with high-altitude balloons,” Lt. Gen. Daniel Karbler, commander of the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command, told Defense News in 2020.

The final challenge, given this history, is balloon diplomacy. So far, that has been disastrous.

China began the current poisonous round by sending its surveillance balloon over the United States just as Secretary of State Antony Blinken was about to travel there for meetings to rebuild Sino-American dialogue. It was clear that Chinese President Xi Jinping wanted the visit to take place, despite the balloon’s discovery, when China issued a rare semi-apology for the overflight.

The PLA wasn’t conducting a rogue operation, as some have imagined. The Chinese military doesn’t do anything these days without Xi’s broad approval. Instead, this seems likely to have been a situation where military officials didn’t realize that an intelligence operation could have disastrous political consequences. China needs a National Security Council to coordinate policy.

President Biden, harassed by Republican critics, decided to shoot down the balloon. That was probably an inescapable political decision, given the GOP furor, but it came at an unfortunate time. The impact was succinctly stated by China’s Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng, slated to become Beijing’s new ambassador to Washington: “What the U.S. has done has seriously impacted and damaged both sides’ efforts and progress in stabilizing Sino-U.S. relations.”

Biden seemed to be trying to soften the diplomatic impact Thursday, saying of the balloon incident: “It’s not a major breach. Look, the total amount of intelligence gathering that’s going on by every country around the world is overwhelming.”

But the reality is that the new Cold War between China and the United States is deepening, with growing military competition in every domain — land, sea, air, space, and now, near space. Dr. Strangelove isn’t yet in control, but he waits in the wings.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column for The Washington Post. His latest novel is “The Paladin.”

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