WASHINGTON: China's "spy-balloon" may be gone from US skies, but many issues remain to be sorted in the aftermath of its violent takedown by a heat-seeking missile fired from one of the world's most advanced fighter jets, Nikkei Asia reported.
With anti-China sentiments enjoying bipartisan support in the US, some Republican leaders have tried to score extra political points by attacking President Joe Biden for not shooting down the high-altitude airship sooner. At the same time, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has hinted at the incompetence of the previous Republican administration in failing to detect earlier sorties.
Nikkie Asia reported that the decision to deploy a state-of-the-art F-22 Raptor and a USD 500,000 AIM-9X Sidewinder missile to remove the offending object has also been questioned. Despite being more than 60 meters tall and weighing more than 900 kilograms, a top air defence official told reporters that the airship demonstrated neither "hostile act nor hostile intent."
Chinese officials, meanwhile, continue to insist that Washington overreacted by destroying what they insist was a civilian meteorological balloon. That the Biden administration decided to take such a drastic course of action in response to the violation of US territorial airspace, though, is due to the growing desire among American policymakers to be seen and heard as taking a tough stance on China.
While the balloon on its own did not constitute a clear and present danger to US national security, its trajectory over sensitive American military installations, such as Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, betrays the non-benign nature of the overflight. Indeed, it could even be seen as a signal of Beijing's intent to prepare for a future all-out war, as per the report by Nikkei Asia.
The conduct of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance activities by one military against another is fair game in international politics.
To track the growing capabilities of the People's Liberation Army, the US military has long been conducting airborne reconnaissance missions in international airspace along the Chinese coastline and the South China Sea, despite sporadic aggressive countermeasures by PLA naval and air force units.
Orbiting satellites are a primary means by which Beijing and Washington collect reconnaissance data on each other, and this is where the balloon episode has perhaps betrayed China's strategic thinking. In the unlikely event of a full-blown conflict with the US, Chinese defence planners are rightly concerned that their space-based reconnaissance platforms could be degraded, if not destroyed entirely.
While the PLA has acquired increasingly advanced intercontinental ballistic missiles in recent years, the potential loss of its space-based remote-sensing satellites would make missiles much less useful.
High-altitude balloons could potentially mitigate this shortcoming by serving as a backup system. The extension of Chinese strategic depth also comes into play given how the balloon made its way close to US ICBMs, including the LGM-30G Minuteman III missiles deployed at the Malmstrom base.
In the event of an all-out war, US nuclear forces could well be targeted by the PLA's near-space vehicles. With American air and missile detection capabilities limited both by the need to cover an expansive geography and a lack of new sensors, this gap can be expected to be exploited if left unaddressed.
Given the US military's "domain awareness gap" in detecting previous Chinese high-altitude balloon flights, not helped by the relatively low emittance of infrared signals in the stratosphere from such inflatable airships, this episode has underlined that Washington's airborne warning and control system program is far from secure.
Although the spy-balloon" posed no immediate security threat to the continental US or the American public, its discovery has revealed vulnerabilities in the country's homeland defence. While Washington signalled to Beijing that it took the incursion seriously by deploying its most advanced weapons systems to shoot it down, further work, such as the installation of more over-the-horizon radar systems, is required.
The 7.2 percent increase in China's official annual defence budget, the eighth consecutive single-digit rate rise, unveiled earlier this month shows that PLA spending plans continue to be subordinated to, and coordinated with, gross domestic product growth.
Despite alarming assessments about supposed Chinese military adventurism toward Taiwan in the coming few years, it seems that Beijing would prefer to continue hiding and biding for a while at least. With the PLA still in the midst of its latest reforms, Beijing can be expected to keep operations below the threshold of war to advance its near- and medium-term national objectives.
That is, despite China's growing assertiveness, it remains unwilling to call into question Washington's status as the incumbent world-class military power for now. Nikkie Asia reported that a seismic shift has been underway in US politics for the past two decades in response to China's military buildup.
Apart from Capitol Hill's rare unanimity in passing a resolution to condemn Beijing for the balloon incident, the hot air shown by certain US policymakers needs to be replaced with cool heads able to mitigate the long-term threat that Beijing poses in managing what is arguably the most consequential bilateral relationship of the 21st century.
Attempts to beat the drums of war, as some Democrats and Republicans have done by depicting one another as "weak" on China can only push forward the risk of avertable conflict.
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