China’s Spy Balloon Marks Beginning Of End To Beijing’s Global Soft Power Sway – Analysis


The Chinese spy balloon over the US has been a continuation of a new spectrum of Chinese power projection abroad, and is meant to test responses by the West, but more importantly, on gaining strategic information and enhancing espionage capacities.

The balloon surveillance programme is part of a wider fleet that has spanned five continents. The US believes the suspected surveillance balloon project was being operated from China’s coastal Hainan province and targeted countries including Japan, India, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines. Similar balloons had operated over North and South America, South East Asia, East Asia and Europe.

US intelligence sources have strong evidence to point out that the balloon programme is an aerial surveillance program run by the People’s Liberation Army out of Hainan.

The huge embarrassment it causes to the US, is meant to send a strong signal to the rest of the world that China now possesses almost limitless capacity to test and challenge the readiness and resilience of almost all nations on earth, and that it can get away with it pretty easily with no clear repercussions and deterrence.

It aims to make Biden look even weaker and more vulnerable, and to weaken the US image among the allies and further embolden anti-US players.

It is also meant as a cheap, effective and a strong psychological victory over the West and the US, and to use the counteraction of Washington in shooting it down as a pretext to frame it as an unnecessary inflammatory act over a “harmless and accidental” balloon misdirection.

The spy balloon saga has been part of a wider ‘vast surveillance program’ run by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, partly operating out of Hainan province on China’s south coast, as mentioned by Pentagon and US intelligence officials.

Beijing intends to show to the others that the US can be infiltrated by cheap and effective means, serving as an embarrassment to the West and sending fear and a message of defiance and deterrence to other states.

As it tries to project greater trust and confidence in a new China led system, it seeks to weaken the sphere of West based order and trust and alliance by giving the message that the US is no longer invincible. America’s backyard can now be easily breached and that if the US can be a victim of this move, then other players are almost in the oblivion. 

It fortifies the message and notion that the sphere of China’s reach and power is here to stay, and that the world must accept the fact that China has awakened and will be the most serious challenge to US power and dominance since the great wars. It no longer is adhering to the principle of bidding time, staying low and being patient, as its dwindling internal capacity and resilience no longer support a long term and protracted competition and conflict with the combined staying power of the US led West and the rest of the world.

China’s balloon-technology programs also highlighted the intent to reap the benefits of its foreign intellectual property pursuit and dominance, which is then used to develop further adversarial capabilities to seek strategic gains through the expansive surveillance and espionage programme. 

Most other states will not have the capacity to shoot down the balloon, and it can be used as a quick and short term tool, apart from other capacities at its disposal.

It is a moral win and confidence win, but it also backfired, as other states will look more deeply and seriously into Chinese espionage and influence.

Various Chinese government documents indicate that meteorological balloons are growing in importance to the People Liberation Army’s aerospace strategy.

China’s 14th Five-Year Plan for 2035 lists aerospace technology as a frontier front of research where Beijing is deepening military–civilian collaboration to improve China’s military and economic strength, with its ‘centennial military building goal’ by 2027.

The balloons are used for military intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. The Financial Times has suggested, based on footage of the craft, that they could potentially carry warheads.

The China Meteorological Administration (CMA) had an annual budget of US$5.8 billion in 2022, and is involved in ‘military-civil fusion’ projects and collaborates with the PLA. According to the Project 2049 Institute, the CMA also has potential capabilities for military intelligence collection and surveillance.

Beijing’s aim is to militarise the use of high-altitude airships as part of a broader strategy for dominance in the near-space region.

The PLA perceives it as an essential part of the five-dimensional integrated battlefield of land, sea, air, space and electronic warfare, arguing that the near-space region is becoming another geostrategic domain where other players, particularly the US, are posturing. 

The science of military strategy 2020, the PLA’s military strategy, describes the PLA expanding the scope of aircraft to operate in near and deep space. Its aerospace strategy has undergone transformation, where since the 1990s, the PLA Air Force has primarily based its strategy on ‘territorial air defence’, focusing on the aerial defence of mainland China.

As changes in threats grew, the doctrine of ‘integrated aerospace capabilities’ was adopted, where the Xi administration formally recognised ‘integrated aerospace capabilities’ as a core PLA strategy.

The technological application through foreign derivation of know-how in extending the agenda of the PLA and Chinese Communist Party exposed the risks of international commercial collaboration with Chinese companies on dual-use technologies or technologies with potential military applications.

It underscores the importance for governments, other entities and research institutions to undertake due diligence when they are collaborating or contracting with foreign entities.

Japan announced that after they had re-analysed past cases of unidentified flying objects, they strongly suspected that China had flown at least three spy balloons across their territory since 2019.Taiwanese officials claimed that Taiwan has also been spied on by dozens of Chinese military balloons.

All these incidents highlighted an underestimation of China’s surveillance capability – and the lengths Beijing would go to prove it.

These acts that have violated international law and global order, have again been met with subdued responses and restraints.

States are too fearful to call out strongly against these measures, and further hampered by their economic ties with Beijing.Another factor remains that the “findings” and the conclusion about the intent of the balloon have been primarily from the US, which are then used as an excuse by the non-West and China allies that these accusations are laden with biasness and hypocrisy.

Just like Moscow in justifying the war in Ukraine, and with the recent speech by Putin in defending Moscow and his own actions by pinning the blame on the West and the US as the warmongers and the main causes of the conflict in Ukraine, Beijing is using the same narrative in justifying its cause and course of the actions and maneuvers taken to expand its global aim.

Often singling out Washington as the primary instigator and playing to the local gallery in shaping the long held and ingrained propagandistic drive in ramping up hypernationalism and in inducing fear against the supposed American drive to target ethnic Russians and Chinese and Russia and China as a whole in stopping their rise and place in the world order, the moves have created heightened and systemic disdain, fear and hatred against the West. 

The historical propagandistic engulfment has created a prevailing and encompassing need for the local populaces to have a strong moral and national sense of duty in defending the countries and their rich civilisational legacies, often using the nationalistic card of preserving their survival against the “arrogant, violent and warmongering” Westerners and American out to wipe them out on the global influence front.

China’s reputation, its adherence to international law, and global perception have already taken a nosedive for years, exacerbated by the pandemic and the hard hitting power bellicosity and approaches throughout the world, and this incident has been a continuous act to send a strong message to the rest of the world that in the rising Chinese age, there is no path in which Beijing is not at liberty and capacity to deliver, even at its own reputational and soft power expense. 

The lack of a concerted outcry and pushback from the global community, exposed a glaring futility and fragility of the rules based international order, in which other states are slowly but surely being pulled into Beijing’s orbit, which signalled a growing testament to China’s ability to deter other countries from criticising them, creating a Beijing centric order.

Beijing’s efforts to cement its soft power push since the 2008 Beijing Olympics have been stonewalled by the succession of Xi, and that China’s reputation and soft power influence as a result have undergone a one-sided transformational shift from being a voluntary and natural pull of soft power credential expansion, to one that is mainly forced by the virtues of China’s hard power might and coercion, and economic tool and blackmailing capacity.

Other observers have also pointed out the growing trend of Beijing’s tactics of deflecting on any accusation or claim by the West, particularly the US, by engaging in “whataboutism”, which is a way of responding to an accusation by proffering a counter-accusation. Whenever there is an outcry by the US or a strong action taken on China’s first act, it will be met with counter-claim of using the same pretext and context in pinpointing the so called same manoeuvres taken by the West and in using Washington’s perceived hypocrisy as a convenient excuse to justify, bypass and to water down any of Beijing’s action.

In this balloon saga, the US has been accused of grossly overreacting, and Washington has also been blamed for more actions of the same nature in targeting China in the past.

Every time Beijing commits an act that is rule bending, controversial or law breaking in nature,it often goes unpunished and largely ignored with no real consequences, which further emboldens the incentivising factor for it to continue the same path.

It is a brazen willingness to flex its power outside its region, and to challenge the US at its continental base, magnifying its continuous attempt to expand its influence through intelligence efforts across the world that have targeted businesses, universities and other traditional targets.

While some analysts have theorized on the possibility of growing internal revolt and movements out to embarrass Xi and the top leadership with this balloon move, or moves by elitist hawks out to sabotage the diplomatic efforts in toning down tensions with the expected Blinken trip, it is worth noting that each move by Beijing has its own meticulous details, intent and strategic purpose.

The US hoped to bring along China on the new system and culture of democracy, freedom and law abiding players that will further enrich China’s own progress and global purpose. Decades on, and with time and money wasted, Beijing’s aims are increasingly seen in Washington as incompatible with US hopes.

But when the US talks about putting guardrails around its relationship with China and protecting the rules based order, Beijing believes America wants to thwart its own great power destiny and will use this convenient pretext. This balloon saga further signals a new inevitable power competition and conflict, in which the long jinxed Thucydides’ trap is only a matter of when and in severity level, not a matter of if.

Collins Chong Yew Keat

Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya, the top university in Malaysia for more than 9 years. His areas of interests include strategic and security studies, American foreign policy and power analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.

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