Accusation and counter accusation between the US and China over the controversial balloon, described as Beijing’s surveillance airship and spotted over northern US sky in the last days of January and early days of February, are continuing. Rather becoming acerbic with each day passing, the US accusation against China has thrown both countries in the gridlock of toxic relations.
A sign of this was apparent in President Joe Biden’s speech he made during a joint address to the US Congress on February7. “I am committed to work with China where it can advance American interests and benefit the world…But make no mistake…if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country,” the US President warned China as tensions between the two countries flared up after Americans detected a Chinese spy balloon flying over the US and shot it down over the Atlantic Ocean.
In fact, the said balloon was spotted over Montana, which is home to the US’s international ballistic nuclear missile silos and strategic bomber bases. It was seen within days of a state legislature in Montana passing a bill which would prevent foreign adversaries from buying agricultural land in the US state.
In 2022, China’s Shandong-based Fufeng Group, purchased 300 acres of agricultural land just 15 miles away from the Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota, which borders Montana in the east.
According to CNBC, the Air Force base is a home to the US’s most sensitive military drone technology. The news outlet further informed that the base is also a home to US military’s space networking centre, considered as the backbone of all US military communications across the globe.
China in its defence said the balloon was for “research and metrological purposes” and it drifted into American airspace by “force majeure.” But the Pentagon rejected China’s defence, stating it was a surveillance balloon.
While the Pentagon was seized with unravelling facts behind the Chinese balloon which was reported to be of the size of three buses, the incident further chilled relations between Washington DC and Beijing.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken who was due to begin his much talked about visit to China from February 4, postponed it, stating the incident was “clear violation” of US “sovereignty” and “international law” –hinting in substantial terms Americans’ unhappiness with the development.
Analysts say Antony Blinken’s planned visit, a first by a US Secretary of State to China in five years, could have provided guardrails to relations between the two countries, which are currently in bad shape.
But now it does not seem the US will say let bygones and be bygones to China and bury the hatchet, even though Beijing described the balloon that hovered over America at an altitude of 60,000 feet as a “civilian airship,” and that it made an “unintended” entry into “US airspace due to force majeure.” However, analysts say there was more to it than met the eye.
In fact, in the world of intelligence, China has tried every means to develop technologies to trick its rivals, but in the process, it has led to making it among the select countries which have over the years used earth, sea, and sky as a hub of their surveillance activities against rivals and enemies.
While the US Navy was busy in the recovery of debris from the Chinese balloon out of the Atlantic for analysis early in February, China Aerospace Science, and Industry Corporation (CASIC) was forthrightly engaged in setting up a new ground station in Antarctica for its ocean observation satellites, which are currently eight in number and are orbiting in the space for various purposes including oceanographic analysis and resource exploitation. The new Antarctica ground station will facilitate the transmission of data from these satellites, said Global Times in its latest report.
Analysts say there are geopolitical connotations to every Chinese move: equipment used for peaceful purposes today could be used for other purposes by Beijing tomorrow. Anthony Bergen of the Australian Strategic Policy in his write up maintains that “given the track record Beijing has in moving rapidly on a broad front, as it was done in the South China Sea, we need to be prepared to respond to a rapid increase in the speed and scale of China’s actions in Antarctica.”
However, in the backdrop of China’s rapid militarisation of its satellites and overseas ground stations, some analysts argue that Beijing’s move in Antarctica could add to the country’s various command, control, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems.
Ground stations help keep “track of the tens of thousands of satellites and other objects in Earth’s orbit—a capability known as space situational awareness (SSA) that is critical for fighting and winning wars in information-rich battle spaces,” the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a US-based think tank said in an October 2022 report.
China, which describes space as a military domain in its’ 2015 Defence White Paper, has been setting up extensively a network of satellite ground stations across the world. According to Asia Times, in South America alone, it has 11 stations—two in Venezuela, three in Bolivia, one in Chile, one in Brazil and four in Argentina. Besides, as per The Atlantic, it operates the second-most-sophisticated satellite programmes, next only to that of the US.
As of the end of 2021, as per the November 2022 report of the US Defence Department, China’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance-capable (ISR) satellite fleet had more than 260 systems. But The Atlantic in its latest report said that till September 2022, as many as 562 Chinese satellites were orbiting the Earth and this year, Beijing has a plan to launch more than 200 satellites. In 2022, China’s spending on space programmes was $12 billion, said a report by Statista, a Hamburg-based online platform with specialisation in market and consumer data.
Like the US, China relies heavily on the space domain, with constellations of space-borne electronic intelligence (ELINT) and communications intelligence (COMINT) systems plus photo-reconnaissance, imaging and communications satellites. These two countries have also used balloons for surveillance purposes and according to Time, the popular American magazine, they have been doing so for years. In recent years, China has, however, enhanced the use of balloons for surveillance in the world.
“Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years,” the US Department of Defence said in a statement last week after the sighting of the Chinese balloon over Montana, home to the US’s international ballistic nuclear missile silos and strategic bomber bases for several days in the last week of January and the first week of February before being shot down by a US fighter jet off the coast of South Carolina on February 4.
A Chinese balloon was also sighted over Latin American countries during the time Americans spotted it over their sky. In February 2021, Taiwanese authorities said they discovered balloons deployed by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army floating over their self-governing island. Chinese balloons have been also spotted over countries across South Asia, East Asia, Europe, South and North America.
During President Donald Trump’s regime too, balloons were spotted near Texas, Florida and Hawaii, as well as the Pacific Ocean Island of Guam, where the US has naval and air force bases, said the Japan Times. Japanese media have also reported two balloons floating over different parts of the country. As per media reports, a balloon was sighted over northeast Japan in 2020 and another one in 2021.
Under Xi Jinping leadership, China is said to have poured in hundreds of billions of US dollars in modernising the People’s Liberation Army; it has reorganised the command structure, upgraded everything from warships to missile stockpiles. This includes investing in space and near space areas. Defence expert William Kim, a consultant at Washington-based think tank The Marathon Initiative was quoted by the Japan Times as saying that the near-space area is considered as a separate domain by China’s military planners as this is the region which is “too high for most airplanes, too low for satellites.”
For this, a balloon fits the bill as while flying at level lower than a satellite, it can take clearer images than the satellite which completes one Earth orbit in 90 minutes. This apart, balloons, fitted with electronic devices, can be capable of gathering electronic signals and intercepting communications, say analysts. A CNN report said balloons, as a part of China’s surveillance programme, are in part run out of the country’s Hainan province. The US-based media outlet also said that China has conducted at least two dozen missions across at least five continents in recent years.
–The writer is a senior journalist with wide experience in covering international affairs. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda