This week's blog is authored by Dr Alan Mendoza, Founder and Executive Director of the Henry Jackson Society.
“This is unacceptable and must never happen again” are strong words in any diplomatic context. Particularly so when considering they were spoken by Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, to his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, in their first face-to-face meeting last weekend at the Munich Security Conference.
This is not the usual flow of diplomatic banter. But then again, meetings between great powers do not usually take place in the aftermath of a spying scandal.
On January 28th, a Chinese balloon entered US airspace near Alaska before transiting over Canada and then the continental US. US jets subsequently shot down the balloon, and three other smaller airborne objects over Canada, Alaska and Lake Huron, in the week following. After an initial silence, China claimed ownership of the balloon, but argued its purpose was for meteorological research and that it had been regrettably blown off its original course by unexpected weather patterns.
It must have been some gust of wind that sent a balloon packed with collection pod material, including high-tech equipment that could collect communications signals and other sensitive information, over one of the US’ most important military bases in Montana. With multiple antennas, the equipment was quite clearly designed for intelligence surveillance, and it is of course no secret that China has been spying on the US for years now.
For an act that quite openly and obviously violated US sovereignty, China has gotten off incredibly lightly. With this unauthorised intrusion it is clear that the Chinese state is working towards extracting as much information as possible from its rivals, and the alarm needs to be sounded or else this degree of brazenness is likely to become an ongoing pattern.
The Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chinese Communist Party’s rubberstamp parliament is certainly gearing up for a long-term fight. Its recent and ludicrous condemnation of US legislators for having trampled on the sovereignty of other nations after the latter had passed a measure condemning the China balloon incident is indicative of how badly relations between the two sides have deteriorated in recent years. And it is not only China’s relationship with the US which is turning sour, but the entirety of the West, as China increasingly reveals itself to be a clear and present threat to our integrity.
Nothing has driven this home more in recent months than the evolution of China’s relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Beijing has refrained from condemning Russia over its war in Ukraine and refuses to recognise Russian aggression as an invasion, but rather as a "special military operation", a description invented by Putin to cloak his naked warmongering. Xi Jinping has stood by Putin, resisting Western pressure to isolate Moscow. In a similar vein, China has increased trading relationships with Russia. As a persistent and growing buyer of Russian energy exports, the Chinese market has provided a lifeline to Russia's sanctions-battered economy. To understand why Russia’s economy is not shrinking as fast as it should in reaction to Free World pressure, all roads lead back to Beijing. This apparent contrarianism is in China’s self-interest, as intensifying Russian dependence on its giant eastern neighbour, only makes its bid for supreme global power stronger.
Could reactions to Sino-Russian rapprochement be reaching a breaking point? Quite possibly. Just this week, the US issued a stern admonition that it believed China was considering giving Russia weapons and ammunition to restock its failing Ukrainian military campaign. The US felt compelled to suggest that for China to do so would be considered a game-changing diplomatic blunder, which would be responded to.
It is obvious that China’s errant behaviour on the world stage requires a toughening of Western rhetoric in response to Chinese violations, and that our actions need to match in intensity and intent of those taken against us by the Chinese regime. There has already been a positive response to China’s heavy-handedness on this side of the Atlantic as UK Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, has announced the government will be conducting a full security review in response to China’s activities.
But reviews and condemnations are not enough – measures need to be taken to prevent China’s sinister international agenda from proceeding.
In particular, the CCP's bad faith should encourage us to lessen our dependence on Chinese supply chains in critical areas, and quickly. Such supply chains need to be China-minimalist in nature: we cannot allow a rival to possess any stranglehold on key national infrastructure, or to be able to secure a competitive advantage through using technology for malign purposes.
In the latest ridiculous example of a glaring won goal in this regard, British police forces have been leaving themselves open to information leakage to Beijing because of their reliance on Chinese-made cameras. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak may have declared that British jets are on standby to shoot down any Chinese surveillance balloons if spotted in UK airspace, but what does this matter if the police are potentially compromising intelligence information to China on a silver platter anyway?
It’s not as if the UK government is not well aware of the dangers emanating from the east. Having previously banned Chinese CCTV systems on government property, it should be simple to extend a similar prohibition to the use of any Chinese-made electronic devices in any arm of the government. If the national security argument is not a clincher then we should also remember that using Chinese-made cameras also presents ethical concerns, since some manufacturers have been implicated in helping the Chinese government monitor concentration camps for the persecuted Uyghur population in the Xinjiang province.
The Chinese CCP regime is a strategic threat, but also a moral one. In choosing how to respond to its advances, Western leaders have all too often chosen complicity or cravenness over conviction and clarity. It is time to change track. With China’s cack-handed international efforts showing no sign of being reined in, we have the perfect incentive to remind the CCP that all hostile actions will result in equal and opposite reactions.