Deflating China’s Trial Spy Balloon – Politico

Elizabeth Braw is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and an advisor at Gallows Technologies. He is a regular contributing columnist for Politico Europe.

The story of the Chinese balloon, which crossed the United States before being shot down by the military on the East Coast, is entertaining TV audiences around the world. But this balloon was no joke and US President Joe Biden’s administration made the right decision, shooting it down after it reached open water.

However, America’s encounter with this mysterious intruder raises pressing questions for the country’s European allies: Will they be able to spot a Chinese balloon, or other non-military provocation? And would allies be willing to see such incursions as worthy of assistance with NATO’s collective defense obligations under Article 5?

When the mysterious balloon was first spotted in the skies over the state of Montana and US authorities briefed reporters that it was Chinese, Beijing initially dismissed it as a baseless allegation. Afterwards, China’s foreign ministry acknowledged that it was in fact a Chinese airship but said it was used for “mainly meteorological” purposes, adding that China “regrets the balloon’s unintended entry” into US airspace.

However, it doesn’t really matter whether the balloon was spying or merely observing the weather – what matters is that a Chinese airship entered US airspace without permission, and before that, through Canadian airspace, fooled the mighty US military. Yes, the US Air Force could have shot down the balloon the moment it crossed its airspace, but then it risked falling debris and possibly killing civilians on the ground, causing a huge uproar. And since the balloon was not a fighter jet, there was no need to shoot it down immediately. So, the military has held its fire, moving the global public and allowing Beijing to signal that it can outrun America even in its own backyard.

That’s precisely the point of such stunts — and countries like China are using them with increasing frequency.

Fleets of Chinese dredgers regularly appear off the coast of Taiwan’s Matsu Islands and mine Taiwanese sands. Their presence is an act of provocation, but it does not warrant a military response. Instead, Taiwan’s coast guard ships must approach the dredgers and demand they leave. It is a nuisance and a drain on Taiwan’s resources, and it suggests to China that Taiwan is powerless to protect its own waters.

In fact, fleets of civilian Chinese ships often park themselves in other countries’ waters to send the same message. Russia, meanwhile, has been moving its border with Georgia in small increments, taking tiny bits of territory from its neighbor each time. And in 2021, Belarus began arming migrants who were forced to cross the border into Lithuania, Poland and Latvia – a ploy to show that the EU is unable to protect its borders.

A military attack is hardly an appropriate response to such provocations – but it’s not clear what it is either. And now, we have Chinese balloons to contend with.

For its part, the U.S. military had aircraft that could shoot down intruders — and, more importantly, its armed forces were so powerful they could take on China if Beijing decided to retaliate. But what if a Chinese balloon lands in, say, Estonia?

That would be a violation of Estonia’s sovereignty, but “the problem with a small country is that there won’t be enough room tactically to fire it,” said retired Gen. Riho Teras, a former Estonian defense chief and current member. European Parliament. “It will enter and leave Estonia in a very short time.” The Baltic nations must keep NATO fighter jets on standby in case of aerial incursions, Terras said, and “something like that could happen with Baltic air policing”.

But nobody knows the reality.

On Saturday, the United States shot down what it identified as a Chinese surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

NATO’s Baltic Air Policing task is to protect the Baltic states against Russian warplanes, just as a country’s air force protects against hostile warplanes. But a balloon? Two balloons? An armada of balloons? What about other intrusions? “Even in 2001, we were in doubt as to whether the Twin Towers had been an Article 5 attack because it had never been called in response to a terrorist attack before,” George Robertson, then NATO’s secretary general, told me. “But that day it felt like the right thing to do.”

Today, however, as aggression rises below the Article 5 threshold, individual countries and groups of NATO member states must signal that they will punish any aggressors. “The essence of resistance is ambiguity, which requires the adversary to take a big gamble,” Robertson noted. “The territory of the Article 5 guarantee is well known, and any adversary could take a great risk with any attack – conventional or otherwise.”

Countries need not specify how they will respond, and their response may not include military force, but they should be in no doubt that they will indeed act against any intrusion. Otherwise, China will advance, and so will other hostile nations.