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Wikistrat Webinar: The Chinese Spy Balloon

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

In late January, US fighter jets brought down the Chinese spy balloon that entered US airspace. Chinese authorities have yet to provide an official explanation about the event or added any information on it, fueling what are already high tensions between Washington and Beijing. But what are the long-term, broader implications of the event on China-US relations? What could this mean for the Chinese leadership, and what have they learned from it?

In early February, Wikistrat hosted a webinar on the topic with Kerry Brown, Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London.

The webinar consisted of a "TED Talk"-style lecture, which can be viewed in the video below, and a Q&A session.

Key Takeaways:

  • US-China relations are entering a dangerous period. "The very fact that an event like this has happened, at the time it happened, has helped to reinforce already strengthening attitudes on both sides that they are in a situation of intensified conflict. [Consequently,] there is not much space for another incident like this to happen.”

  • The image of Xi Jin Ping as the all-powerful leader is shrinking. "The Hu Jintao incident, the protests against Zero COVID in November – and now this – raise questions about the image of the all-powerful president for life."

  • The event captures the uneasiness and fears in the United States about China. “Joe Biden felt it necessary to shoot down the object because he needed to show intent and strength towards China.”

  • Biden administration’s management sent the message to China that there are sovereign-space boundaries no country should cross. It seems highly reckless for China to come into conflict with the US, and “this event will have made it even more recklessly foolhardy.”

To read all the insights from the webinar, click here:

Wikistrat Report_ Chinese Spy Balloon_Feb2023.docx
Download PDF • 690KB

Full Transcript:

The Lecture: The Chinese Balloon

Prof. Kerry Brown:

So I'll be talking about the Chinese balloon. I call it the Chinese balloon rather than the spy balloon because I wanted to avoid being over dramatic. I'm not an expert as most other people on espionage and the technology of espionage. So what I'd really be talking about is the perceptions and the kind of geopolitics of this interesting, and maybe highly symbolic, issue, and what its long-term meaning might be.

If you kind of reversed the situation and had an American balloon going over China, you can imagine the response. It's important to stress that no one likes having their space wandered into, even by the most innocent. And they will always make the most dramatic and probably worse kind of inferences when this sort of thing happens.

In fact, in 2000, the beginning of the Bush presidency, may have been 2001, but certainly, in the early 2000s, there was the famous Hainan spy incident where an American plane violated, according to China, Chinese airspace, and a Chinese fighter plane clashed with it. And indeed the Chinese pilot died and the American plane came down in Hainan and there was a great deal of controversy. In the end, China insisted that the United States apologized. And although the pilots were repatriated and fortunately there weren't fatalities on their side, very tragically there was on the Chinese side, it was an incident that looked like it was going to prestige a very, very bad period in US-China relations. September the 11th happened and of course, things changed dramatically.

But this is, I think, a good place to start. The timing for this incident is also an important thing to remember. It could not have happened at a worse time. For the more conspiratorially minded, it might be that they feel that this is China really testing the waters and trying to provoke America. But in my mind, America is provoked just by China being the way it is. It doesn't need more provocation to be subject to. So I'm probably less inclined to believe that this was deliberate, but I'm more inclined to believe that it was a kind of combination maybe, of accident, but maybe some intention on the part of the Chinese that's to say, of course, they have a deep interest in what's happening in America and it may be that these instances are far more common than we have known about beforehand. Some people have said, in fact, there were instances in the past, so this is not so unprecedented.

The optics matter hugely in this kind of situation. When China-US relations are already so poor and when there was a state department visit by Blinken, the Secretary of State, to China planned imminently to have this kind of event happening when there had been a thaw recently, and after so many months and years, of bad feeling. Surely this is kind of making, whatever the issue would be, it's magnified it and made it far, far more difficult. And I think it kind of symbolizes a lot of the issues between the United States and China at the moment. The fact that even simple events can have a greater import because of the type of relationship these two powers have and the sorts of lack of trust, lack of faith, and fundamental difference between the two.

To me, it's been interesting to look at more tangible things that even an observer from some way away like I can see. And that is that in a very strange way, this kind of particular event captures the sorts of uneasiness and fears in China, sorry, in the United States, about and at China. It's a sort of question about what we should be wary and fearful about and I'm not denying that there's many things about contemporary China for outsiders that are and should be a cause of concern and worry and vigilance, but it's a question of degree. And to me, it was interesting that in the end, the Biden administration felt obliged to shoot this object down as much because they needed to show intent and strength towards China, even though it's questionable whether it's actually served any purpose.

And so the kinds of strong currents of feeling unease and psychological unrest that China raises have been perfectly encapsulated, particularly for Americans, by this incident, despite it being unclear what exactly the information this balloon may have been gathering were it to be used for surveillance, and whether that would be in a use. These were all kind of beside the point that this thing existed, that it could be seen, that it was tangible, seemed to kind of make real, I think what is already lying in people's minds and in their emotions in America and maybe elsewhere, but in this case, of course, in America.

The final issue, of course, is about what I alluded to earlier, and that is intention. With the G20 last year, Xi Jinping very visibly made moves with Biden, basically had meetings. The language of wolf warrior diplomacy has changed in recent months. The Chinese ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, has returned to China as foreign minister. He has a different approach, a different tone. So a lot of commentary over December into January was about how this kind of showed that China's approach the world was changing. China's economy is in a really difficult situation at the moment. The pandemic finally has changed the response in China, zero COVID is no longer a reality. Very dramatically and quickly the Chinese government have changed its approach so that in almost every area now, restrictions have been lifted.

And yet we have, after all of this change, this fairly blunt reminder that the underlying structures of the relationship between the United States and China and the Chinese and the rest of the world has not really changed. It's unlikely to change very dramatically any time soon, if at all. Why would an event like this have happened if it were not by accident? And of course it seems strange that it would happen by accident but yes, if we say it wasn't by accident, then we have two options pretty clearly. The first is that it was mandated by Xi Jinping for some reason, and the second that it was done by others who were acting without his awareness.

As I say in the slide, if it were as though in Britain we've had a number of incidents with Russian security in Salisbury elsewhere with people being poisoned and it's always been claimed. One of the arguments that it wasn't put in that was behind this, this was rogue elements in the Russian security apparatus. Well, we have learned, I suppose with the invasion of Ukraine, that Russia's a highly centralized system and presumably Putin was in charge all along and had a complete overview of almost everything that was happening. The rogue element, there was no rogue element, the rogue element was the man at the top. Now in Xi Jinping's China, my assumption is that in fact it's even more the case. It's very centralized and all power begins and ends with the man right at the center, particularly after the Congress last October when all of Xi's men have been bought in.

And therefore, it's a very strange thing to think of an event like this happening without his awareness if it wasn't an accident. And that's kind of really weird because why, after putting all of this effort into it with America, it's then all kind of scuppered by an instant like this? This seems to be counterintuitive and counterproductive. One thing that I'll say in conclusion though is that whatever the reality of whether this was an accident or not, it's a great example of how things can really escalate quickly. If there was any rational calculation behind this event, it may have been to test what kind of response there would be to an unexpected and unwanted event. Well, we've learned that, I think, in this very simple illustration. It's really simple for things to become more and more complicated, higher and higher stakes, and higher risks. In this case, it seems, thankfully, that it was managed and that there was at least some proportionate response and people were rational.

However, it is very easy to think of other events where the stakes are higher and the outcomes are much more dramatic. And so while, of course, one looks at the balloon and can see all sorts of different things, what we should be attending to is fact that something like this, which is pretty, in principle, pretty old technology and pretty visible and tangible, has created a pretty serious rupture in US-China relations and how there is not much space for something which is more dramatic and bigger to cause a huge problem, and how I think everyone needs to do on all sides as much as they can to avoid that happening.

Q&A Session

Question: What message do you think China will draw from the Biden administration’s management (or mismanagement, depending on one’s perspective) of last week’s spy balloon imbroglio? Why?

Prof. Kerry Brown: If I were sitting in Beijing, the lesson I would draw is don't mess with these people. America is highly alert. It has great capacity. It is not going to be mucked around. As I said at the beginning, no one likes their sovereign space violated, terrestrial or in the heavens, so do not muck around with these things. So if it was deliberate, whoever sanctioned this needs to think, okay, let's just move to something a bit safer now because this is really, really critically kind of unstable. And so I think it's maybe helpful in showing that there are real boundaries, you shouldn't wander across some, and maybe there should be a kind of respect for that structure in relationships and some desire for predictability. And that may have served a useful purpose. And even though at the moment, US and China are not talking much, but I hope that they return to talking, and this event shows they talk within properly understood boundaries.

Question: Is it possible the balloon was a test or a validation of access to the US by balloon? If so, what potential weapons would China deliver by balloon?

Prof. Kerry Brown: For me, as a complete amateur who doesn't follow military technology, a balloon, it seemed very strange when I first heard about this incident and I kind of thought that there would be satellites deep in space that would be able to see pretty much everything from someone's writing on a pad, to larger features on the landscape.

I read somewhere that this kind of technology attached to the balloon is able to get longer exposure and therefore make better kind of details. No doubt the Americans are already working out what its capacity was with whatever they salvaged after they shot it down. The point is that it seems to me we should have learned in the last few days that any America, any Chinese kind of military advisor to the president would sort of say that a military encroachment like this is definitely not a good idea.

China is militarily powerful, but it is a long way behind the United States. And I think that's always been respected in Chinese strategic thinking. Xi Jinping, onwards have always stressed that you do not want to go for a conflict with the United States, it's just going to be disastrous. And so if anyone is starting to rethink that now, that's radical, but it seems to me recklessly full hardy, and hopefully this event will have made it even more recklessly full hardy.

Question: Are we going to see more balloons coming? Maybe it could encourage other countries in the region to do the same?

Prof. Kerry Brown: No, if people are rational, of course, that's a big if, but if they're rational, I would imagine no. There's been a lot of speculation over whether these instances are actually common. And I mean, as I say, there was a record of something similar a few years before, but just it wasn't picked up. And of course, there were, at the same time, similar instances that were reported over Latin America. Presumably, weather surveillance by balloons will continue because weather surveillance will continue. But I guess people will just have to be much more careful. I think that this sort of event will make hopefully stronger protocols for people to avoid this kind of thing so I would not foresee this becoming a more frequent occurrence.

Question: How would you assess the US decision to cancel Secretary State Antony Blinken's planned trip to meet with President Xi and other Chinese officials in Beijing? A prudent move, or would it have been more effective to send him anyway? Why?

Prof. Kerry Brown: I think symbolically because of domestic pressure in the United States, it was not possible to send Blinken. I think they had to make a response and the fact that it was only a matter of days before he was due to go is happened, it was just too close. If he hadn't been due to go for a few weeks, maybe it would salvage more. I hope that he will go soon. It's really important that these two powers talk at the highest possible level, and that they talk as much as possible because they have so many areas where they are not aligned at the moment and where there could be misunderstandings, as this incident makes clear. But I completely understand why America would want to have a strong diplomatic response because it is, I think, right in seeing itself as the sufferer in this rather than that sort of actively acting on others, and therefore it had to do something in response. And I'm pretty sure China would've done the same if this had happened.

Question: If you were an advisor to Biden, would you advise him to shut down the next balloon upon identification or would you advise him to wait until it's over the ocean as in the most recent episode?

Prof. Kerry Brown: Well, I imagine just to do the same as you've done now, but I imagine to do it in an even more noisy, furious, and angry way. Once warned, to have this happen again would be a real big problem unless it can be definitively proved as being an accident. I don't know how China does that. If you remember, in 1999, the accidental NATO bombing, as it was called, of the Belgrade Embassy in the wars then, of China's Embassy in Serbia's Belgrade, and America kind of said that it was an accident and it had to be accepted as an accident. Although there was deep skepticism by the Chinese and they did respond, and were extremely angry, and there were mass meetings in China. And 2001, the Hainan spy instance, there was a huge response.

If this instant were to happen today with America having a balloon go over China in a similar way, you can imagine the response. It's good that America has been pretty proportionate in this and it has not created massive nationalistic backlash because I think it would in China, and that shows different dynamics. But I think that if this sort of thing were to be repeated in the future, that would be a huge problem. Probably said for safety reasons, Biden might well authorize it to be shot down over the sea rather than lower land because of the same reasons as it didn't do it this time. But I'm sure it would have to do exactly the same and the outcome would be even more dramatic.

Question: Maybe this incident was just a simple cock-up by the Chinese. After all, it appears that China has sent up balloons on an occasional basis to carry out surveillance on other countries, including the US. Understand that this particular balloon was on a lower trajectory than normal, hence much visible from the ground. That could have been the result of miscalculations by the launchers.

Prof. Kerry Brown: I think like many people, my assumption is always that most of the time things are mistakes or cock-ups. This is the fundamental difference in international relations and diplomacy. Forget all the theories. There's the ones that subscribe to everything being a massive kind of mistake and a cock-up, or those that think it's all kind of got some intention and design behind it and is planned. And I kind of think, in this case, I would sort of assume that it would be it's likely. There's a likelihood it wasn't deliberate. I would think it wasn't deliberate. But just recently, I think Xi Jinping's leadership has been making some stranger and stranger decisions. The kind of Hu Jintao episode at the Congress, it sort of looked weird and I assumed at the time it was because Hu Jintao is not very well, and he was being guided off the Congress platform because of maybe health reasons.

And then I thought about it afterwards and that just seemed really weird. It seemed a strange thing. Maybe it was slightly deliberate. And since then, the ways in which Xi Jinping has responded to the protests in November by getting rid of all the pandemic restrictions and then this event, it makes you think that there's a lot of incompetence in this leadership at the moment that wasn't there before. And therefore, it might be a mixture of deliberate and incompetent. All I can say is that really, whoever has control over this area of Chinese activity, they're got to be super, super clear with their risk analysis and their mitigation to make sure that this kind of thing doesn't happen again because then it becomes a pattern. And then you could definitely say that there is deliberate intent behind it. At the moment, I don't think we're quite at that level.

Question: In 2003, the Chinese tried to bring down the US EP-3 recon plane, but it cost a China pilot a grudge out of that episode or promoting their defense and airspace. Along with shooting the balloon, could we include sanctions on public, private, and academia?

Prof. Kerry Brown: There are already restrictions in those areas so I think that's already happening for reasons which predate this incident and go back a long, long time. In America, and now in Europe, there's a lot of screening of any involvement in particular areas for China. Personally, I think that would be self-harming if it goes too far. I think there are clearly areas where you've got to be extremely cautious and some areas where you can't really cooperate. There's not enough shared understanding or that there are too many issues if these are in security or high technology areas where you are protecting particular things. You've got to have very, very clear boundaries, but it seems to be irrational to make this into an enormous restriction on any involvement across the board with China or a kind of furthering of things to the level of sanctions. So personally, I don't think that that would particularly help. After all, it doesn't seem that this was an issue about having some amazing new technology, it was just sheer brazenness if it was deliberate. And as I said just now, that's questionable too. So I don't think that this should prompt any kind of big policy response that would lead to sanctions and further restrictions.

Question: The balloon entered Canadian aerospace after it crossed Alaska. Was it picked up by the binational US Canada North American Aerospace Defense Command and the government of Canada informed?

Prof. Kerry Brown: I don't know. I don't know how it was originally picked up. I think someone, and it may be a more comical remark than meant to be serious, but they said that it was the good citizens of Montana that were the ones that really triggered the alert because they started to take photos of this dramatic site. That's when it really hit the world's news waves and created the response. But I don't know. I don't know the answer to that.

Question: The US and the UK are hosting considerable number of students and researchers in cutting-edge science and tech. Should countries start reducing philanthropy as China has become richer in risk of dual technology?

Prof. Kerry Brown: Again, I'm not in favor of these sorts of border, it should be case by case and it's good that we are learning as much from students coming here, researchers coming here as they maybe are learning from us. In some areas, Chinese researchers are actually world-leading so we want to continue that because it helps in our interests. I think there's probably a need for clarity and protocols as a controversy in Britain at the moment, and I believe in Sweden about China Scholarship Council and the kind of agreements that people have to sign before they come to Britain. These sorts of things, there has to be transparency over, we're not there yet on that and we've got to do more. The bottom line is that there's plenty of areas where we should, well, we do and we should cooperate. I mean public health, areas where there's not massive security issues, but where in fact it's mutual benefit. Let's concentrate on those. There'll be areas of technology however, absolutely, it won't be easy to cooperate. And in some areas I said earlier, there can't be cooperation, but we need to be clear about that rather than just responding to each issue with more and more visceral responses and not being strategic about what helps our purposes, rather than just as a knee-jerk reaction.

Question: Could or should this incident encourage an international balloon treaty as a confidence-building measure such that large balloons would carry ID beacons, mode sea transmitters, remote play loads, release mechanisms, etc.?

Prof. Kerry Brown: I guess if it's true that it was a big, big accident and if it's true that these instances are actually more common than I thought or we knew, yeah, I guess it's a way of doing it. These international agreements take time to set up and they can be hard to police, but I guess it's a way of making clear where the boundaries are. But I'm assuming, as I think someone's just put a comment here, we know what borders are, we know what kind of trespassing borders is. I think that's all very clear and it should already be covered in legislation. So having extra sort of legislation, I'm not sure that really helps. The reason why this particular case has created so much anger in America, and I think rightly so, is because it's known that this is not something that people like and China certainly wouldn't like it. So I think that's got to be understood.

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