International Relations

Another Grey-zone warfare tactic: The spy balloon

The recent incident involving a Chinese’spy balloon’ spotted 60,000 feet above the skies of Montana in the United States (US) and eventually shot down by a missile fired from a US F22 fighter jet off the coast of South Carolina has left far too many questions unanswered.

What does the debris mean?

  • While some of the clues found in the balloon’s debris have revealed some information, the incident itself is reminiscent of Cold War era tactics and a foreshadowing of archetypal grey-zone activities that could characterise China’s standard operating procedure in the future.

United States claims

  • The US State Department’s confident claims that the balloon “was clearly for intelligence surveillance and was likely capable of collecting and geo-locating communications” indicate that a crisis in US-China relations is on the way.

Understanding Chinese attitudes

  • The spy balloon episode provides insight into the worldview of Chinese strategists: There is a strategic awareness in Beijing that, even though the war in Europe has been ongoing for over a year, the US may be shifting its focus to the Western Pacific region, where it is rebuilding its naval power, reviving alliances, and consolidating its position as the hub of its hub-and-spokes network in the Pacific theatre.
  • Defense cooperation between the United States and the Philippines: The US-Philippines defence cooperation has been renewed, bolstering America’s defences against Taiwan.
  • Another source of such perceptions in China is Japan’s return to geopolitics: Following Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s warning that East Asia could face the same fate as Ukraine, the country has drastically altered its security policy. On the one hand, Japan is developing domestic capabilities such as gradually increasing defence spending and planning for a missile arsenal to deter China, while also expanding defence cooperation with the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
  • Chinese reservations about the Indo-Pacific concept: The Indo-Pacific concept has been red-flagged by Chinese strategists, who compare it to America’s approach of developing ties with China’s neighbours with the goal of creating regional blocs like NATO to contain China.
  • Japan’s new military posture is causing concern in Beijing. For starters, it is expected that Japan will deploy missiles in bases closer to Taiwan.
  • Second, there is a belief that Japan’s growing defence capabilities in the region, combined with America’s growing military power in the Western Pacific, will eventually surpass China’s total national power.

A key feature of China’s aggression and expansionism is grey-zone warfare

  • Reef reclamation in the South China Sea: The first step in its expansion into the South China Sea was the reclamation of reefs, followed by the construction of military infrastructure.
  • Villages near the Indian border: In a similar vein, China has built ‘xiaokang’ villages near the Indian border to bolster its territorial claims.
  • One of the grey zone tactics is the spy balloon episode: The spy balloon incident marks a significant turning point in this strategy, as the US has been on the receiving end of China’s grey-zone tactics for the first time.

@the end

To monitor China, the US employs a variety of tools, ranging from satellites to intercepted communications. It is not unreasonable to expect China to do the same to the United States. Between these two points of view is the realisation that the dragon’s hidden grey-zone tactics have spread more brazenly than ever before to the continental US.

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