Nashville (Special to Informed Comment) – China’s balloon incursion was no accident but an expression of both internal Chinese politics and of its foreign policy. Beijing is rumbling with important policy disputes and who has what kind of power. Under the uniform surface, China still has political quarrels.
“No one in charge” was one explanation for Japan’s slide from record growth into stagnation. Tokyo’s power was fragmented among opposing interest groups, wrote Dutch journalist Karel van Wolferen in 1989. Could something similar be happening in today’s Beijing?
That is a key question raised by the spy balloon that traversed the U.S. last week. Xi Jinping, thought to have achieved firm one-man rule in his decade in power, was undermined by the Chinese military. Xi’s power has always relied on the support of the People’s Liberation Army. I think they just reminded him of that.
With Sino-U.S. tensions and China’s economy worsening, last year Beijing decided to make nice with America. They need our business. Obediently, Chinese diplomacy dropped its “wolf warrior” rhetoric and invited Secretary of State Blinken to Beijing for high-level talks.
Suddenly, however, the balloon pushed us back to hostility. Blinken’s visit is “postponed” indefinitely. It looks like somebody in China doesn’t wish to pull back from the policy of expanding China’s power, which until recently had been Xi’s policy, carried out by a rapidly growing defense budget and giant overseas projects.
NBC News: “Chinese Foreign Ministry warned of ‘repercussions’ after U.S. shot down balloon”
Xi, Western analysts thought, had secured Mao-type rule by promoting supporters and jailing possible opponents for corruption. But now we must question if Xi is so powerful.
Why would the People’s Liberation Army send a highly visible balloon across the Pacific and North America? It might as well have flashed chartreuse. Did Xi order it or even know about it? The balloon’s intelligence gains are thought to be negligible; Chinese satellites already comb our skies. The balloon could have been picking up our ground communications, but we would know that as we listened to what it transmitted back to China.
The U.S. shoot-down served the PLA’s aim of increasing hostility. It looks like the PLA is trying to veto Xi’s effort to soothe relations. Presumably, Xi does not like vetos on his policy, so look for a shakeup in China’s command structure. Are any generals fired or retired? If not, Xi acquiesces to their long-standing influence, and we can forget about improved relations.
An accident or foul-up? Likely not. This is not the first Chinese balloon to cross the U.S. At least three did so during the Trump presidency, but they were kept quiet. Trump could have shot them down, but they were smaller and flew higher; civilians did not notice them.
China sets balloons up to circumnavigate the globe and snag them when they’re back over China. They likely carry extra hydrogen to top off what is lost. Electricity supplied by solar panels keeps the balloons under Beijing’s radio commands. This is one of the features the offshore recovery will show. Splashdown avoids fragmenting the several-ton payload if it fell on land. This, rather than danger to citizens, is probably the chief reason for getting it offshore.
Beijing makes a disingenuous show of protesting our shoot-down and recovery. That’s a bit like a bank robber demanding his gun back. If I’m right, the recovered payload will reveal no special secrets because the PLA knew it would be shot down and examined. The balloon’s purpose was more political than military.
Why the Chinese attention-getter balloon this time? My hypothesis: The PLA needs the tension to safeguard its budget. The slowdown in China’s economic growth forces the military to compete with civilian spending. Most growth forms an S-curve in which a rapid increase of roughly 30 years plateaus off. No economy sustains rapid growth forever, and Beijing knows it.
How do we respond to the maneuvers of Chinese politics? The American answer should be: “You want tension? Alright, we’ll give you tension. But do you really prefer tension over commerce?” After Beijing has thought this over, time may again be ripe for diplomacy.
Meanwhile, we must firm up trans-Pacific economic and military ties. Trump foolishly withdrew from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, leaving the field to China. Rename, refurbish and rejoin the TPP, which will enhance trade balances, not worsen them.
The big, scary question: Is this preparation for China’s forcible recovery of Taiwan? One Pentagon general recently said this could happen within two years. Others put the horizon a few years later. Speaker Pelosi visited Taiwan and so should Speaker McCarthy. Maintaining U.S. strategic ambiguity over Taiwan may restrain the vagaries of Chinese politics.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Informed Comment.