A Lot of Hot Air Coming From China

We all know that China is becoming more aggressive on the international stage, and not to our benefit. So what happens when we point out this aggression?

This piece originally appeared in the Epoch Times on February 3, 2023.

I was always told as a kid that if you are caught doing something you shouldn’t be doing it was best to stand up and own your mistake. Pretending that you were not engaged in what is clearly a bad act is rarely a good move and, on the contrary, is laughable the more you are in denial. To wit: If you are seen with your hand in the cookie jar, don’t tell mom you are conducting a quality control experiment on chocolate chip distribution patterns per biscuit.

It seems that China never learned that lesson.

The United States has accused China of flying not one but possibly two “spy balloons” over North America, not coincidentally near sensitive military installations. Both Canada and the United States are monitoring the situation, and Washington brought up the matter with PRC officials, who eventually admitted that the balloon was China’s property. Ottawa summoned China’s ambassador to express its disapproval.

Balloons? As spying tools? Is this serious?

It is important to point out that these are not the same bags of hot air you associate with candles and birthday cakes. These are sophisticated pieces of surveillance that fly tens of thousands of metres in the atmosphere and are loaded with sensitive cameras that can zoom in and capture important IMINT (imagery intelligence) to help a country assess an enemy’s capabilities.

Yes, it may be true that these are not as useful as satellites—after all, a balloon goes where the wind takes it—but it must be of some value or nations would not deploy them. It is also possible, if not probable, that China has sent these over the United States as a way to thumb its nose at the Americans at a time of increasingly fraught bilateral relations.

Some may dismiss this as just a minor incident in a bigger Cold War Chapter 2. After all, the balloon has been detected—not surprising given how controlled U.S. airspace is and has been since the Cold War Chapter 1—and no real damage was done. (Or was it? Intelligence officials are notorious for their “neither confirm nor deny” responses.) And yet there is a bigger issue at play here.

The fact is that China has been getting much more aggressive of late in throwing its weight around internationally. Whether it is economic, as in the Belt and Road Initiative (where it builds major infrastructure projects and gets to run them when the country where it is located cannot pay the tab), or political/security (undisclosed “police stations” in Canada, the United States, and elsewhere, harassing dissidents, stealing secrets, etc. ) in nature, Beijing seems to be bent on doing whatever it wants, irrespective of the circumstances.

It is hard to see where this is all headed. We already have enough sensitive touchstones with the PRC—Xinjiang, Tibet, Falun Gong, Hong Kong, the so-called “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea, disputed islands near Japan, etc.—that adding one more is not helpful. There does not seem to be any immediate end to China’s flouting of international laws and conventions.

True, spying is the world’s oldest profession and will go on regardless of where “balloongate” ends up. Nations will continue to push the envelope to gain an advantage over their adversaries, and will get caught with their hands in the cookie jar on occasion.

It would just be nice to see China stop denying the obvious chocolate icing residue on its lips once in a while.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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