History was just made and we were all able to witness it live on television. Not since Imperial Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor has the American military shot down a foreign aircraft in U.S. airspace. The recent Chinese violation of U.S. airspace and territorial integrity by directing a surveillance balloon over almost the entire length of the continental United States is the latest example of China's aggressive actions against the international rules-based order.
On the eve of Secretary of State Blinken's departure for Beijing, a massive Chinese surveillance balloon was spotted high in the Big Sky country of Montana. The Secretary's trip was highly anticipated as an opportunity to potentially reset the relationship between the United States and the People's Republic of China. President Biden and General Secretary Xi met on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Bali in November 2022. Later that same month, Secretary of Defense Austin and Minister of Defense Wei held discussions in Cambodia during the ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting-Plus (ADMM+). Both of these engagements were touted as setting the conditions for a productive meeting between America's senior diplomat and Chinese senior leaders including General Secretary Xi himself.
This is but the latest example of provocative actions by the CCP regime in Beijing flouting all norms of international behavior. The timing of the balloon's intelligence collection mission comes after a year of dangerous People's Liberation Army (PLA) operations against U.S. and allied aircraft in international airspace.
February 2022, a PLA Navy Luyang class destroyer used a military-grade laser to illuminate a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft in international airspace over the Arafura Sea northeast of Darwin, Australia.
In the Spring of 2022, the PLA Air Force repeatedly "buzzed," within 20 to 100 feet, Canadian CP-140 Aurora maritime patrol aircraft involved in enforcing United Nations Security Council resolutions (UNSCR) against North Korea in international airspace. Notably, these resolutions were ostensibly supported by the PRC.
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In May 2022, a PLAAF high performance fighter intercepted another Australian P-8 in international airspace over the South China Sea. Most ominously, the J-16 fourth generation fighter released chaff and flares in the flight path of the P-8.
In December 2022, a PLA Navy J-11 unsafely maneuvered within 10 feet of a U.S. Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance plane flying in international air space over the South China Sea.
These repeated episodes of Chinese provocations and dangerous behavior are not new. To put these incidents into historical perspective, they are a continuation of PRC counter-normative behavior that has been occurring for decades. Most famously perhaps was the April 2001 incident in which a Chinese jetfighter literally collided with a slow-moving turboprop U.S. Navy EP-3 signals reconnaissance aircraft over international waters south of Hainan Province. This dangerous intercept resulted in the unfortunate death of the Chinese pilot, Wang Wei, who is ignominiously referred to as "Wrong Way" given his recklessness, and the illegal detention of the U.S. crew.
On January 11, 2007, the Chinese conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test by shooting one of its weather satellites utilizing a kinetic kill vehicle launched on a multi-stage solid fuel missile. Despite international condemnation, the PRC did not actually acknowledge the ASAT test until January 23. This Chinese ASAT test caused the largest amount of space debris in human history by creating more than 2,000 trackable-sized pieces with approximately 150,000 debris particles endangering space travel, the International Space Station, and satellites from every country in the world.
Over several days in March 2009 and in the international waters of the South China Sea, the USNS Impeccable, an unarmed ocean surveillance ship, was dangerously harassed by ships of the Chinese navy, the Chinese Bureau of Maritime Fisheries, the Chinese State Oceanic Administration, and Chinese flagged trawlers, as well as a Y-12 aircraft.
Moreover, the Chinese have used PLA, Coast Guard, and commercial vessels to try to forcibly coerce all of their neighbors in the South and East China Seas to accept excessive and unlawful Chinese territorial claims. Beijing even rejected the 2016 ruling of the international tribunal in the Hague that ruled that China had violated the Philippines' sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone by interfering with Filipino fishing and petroleum exploration, building artificial islands as well as other destabilizing and illegal activities within Filipino waters.
In short, the Chinese balloon over America is illustrative of the consistently upward trajectory of China's aggression, adventurism, and egregious disregard for the rules-based international order and, of course, a clear threat to U.S. national security. While a positive, stable relationship between the U.S. and the PRC should be everyone's objective, it cannot be pursued with blinders on completely disregarding American interests and values. Pollyannaish optimism for Chinese cooperation on climate change, fentanyl production, global health, and mutually beneficial economic growth can no longer ignore long-term CCP intent. Namely, revising the international order to favor Beijing's authoritarian system to facilitate Xi Jinping's paramount goal of the so-called "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation by 2049."
If realized, this CCP strategic objective will come at the expense of liberal democratic ideals, not to mention the legitimate national security interests of most countries in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. The United States should prioritize collaboration and cooperation with its allies, partners, and like-minded countries worldwide to thwart China's aggression in all domains. The Biden Administration has made some progress in this regard recently. However, before the U.S. secretary of state unintentionally assumes the role of an ardent suitor willing to engage China on its terms, there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure a "floor" in the relationship is actually built on solid ground and not the illusion of possible Chinese cooperation.
Heino Klinck is a Member of MEMRI's Board of Advisors. He served as the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia, 2019-2021. As an Army Foreign Area Officer, he served as a military attaché in China, 2004-2010.