The twenty-four hours following yesterday’s US shootdown of an unmanned Chinese intelligence balloon off the South Carolina coast has produced the expected litany of accusations and counteraccusations between the United States and China. The Chinese government strongly condemned the US for ‘using force to attack civilian unmanned airships.’ Beijing chose to leave out the fact that the US was entirely within its rights for taking the action it did. The balloon violated the airspace of the United States and was being used to conduct reconnaissance of strategic locations. Recovery efforts continue today as US Navy divers are working to obtain debris from the balloon. Once the post-mortem gets underway more information on the balloon and attached devices and sensors will become available.
China’s intent with regards to future signals intelligence gathering over US airspace remains unclear. China is a sovereign nation and obtaining information about rival states is something sovereign nations do. However, once in a while an incident becomes public and one side inevitably walks away with egg on its face. In this case, China is the guilty party. In the coming days it will alternate between protesting and feigning ignorance until the balloon saga is wiped from public memory on both sides of the Pacific. Xi Jinpeng might score some points with his domestic audience by playing up perceived US aggression, but on the foreign front there’s little to be gained.
As for the already deteriorating Sino-US relations, the balloon drama will not alleviate tensions. It will bring up specific questions about China’s intelligence-gathering operations inside of the United States and hopefully help convince the US government that more measures must be taken to safeguard strategic installations from prying airborne and spaceborne eyes. This is not China’s first foray into US airspace with a balloon. Over the past few days past incidents have come to light. To try and push the focus away from this, Beijing might look to turn up the heat on Taiwan in the coming days with increased air and naval maneuvers around the island-nation. Such a move will send a stern message to Washington that any future incidents such as the balloon crisis that embarrass China will bring about consequences for Taiwan in response.
Late last week and into the weekend China and the United States each had a carrier group training in the South China Sea. On Thursday the USS Nimitz carrier strike group entered the South China Sea to conduct exercises. Within a day of arriving, the Nimitz group was being shadowed by PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) vessels. China also dispatched the aircraft carrier Shandong and her escorts into the South China Sea shortly thereafter to conduct combat-oriented exercises. The move was undoubtedly in response to presence of the Nimitz group in a region which China increasingly claims as nothing less than territorial waters. The significance of the South China Sea to international trade is a main factor in the US 7th Fleet projecting a meaningful and consistent presence there.
In a time where Western Pacific tensions are centered on Taiwan it is important to remind ourselves of the South China Sea’s importance to both the West and China. Beijing’s sweeping territorial claims there, its encroachment on islands claimed by its neighbors and the untapped natural resources beneath SCS waters make it clear China will not pump the brakes on its activities there. Add to the mixture the importance of the sea lanes there and it is clear that a crisis there, either by design or accident, could spiral out of control and lead to a major conflict.
Yet most Western and regional analysts continue pointing the finger at Taiwan as the main flash point in the region and the true objective of China’s designs. It hardly seems to be the case that China’s massive naval buildup in recent years is intended just to help bring about a successful conquest of Taiwan and nothing more. The Chinese strategic plan goes beyond Taiwan Strait and the island-nation south into the SCS and east to the First Island Chain. Eventually, the Chinese appetite will extend beyond these points and into the Indian Ocean and the waters of the Pacific beyond Philippines. Japan recognizes this to a degree, and it is assuredly one motivating factor present in Tokyo’s plans to enlarge the Japanese military.
The bottom line is that China’s strategic goals extend beyond Taiwan. The sooner the United States and its allies apply this to their plans for challenging China, the better. Long story short: It’s not only Taiwan we need to think seriously about.
Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro has warned publicly that the US will not be able to continue providing weapon and material support for Ukraine unless weapons manufacturers increase production in the next six months. SecNav’s comments came in response to a reporter’s question about remarks made by Adm. Daryl Caudle, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command. Caudle had said the US could be forced to decide later this year whether to arm itself or Ukraine. Doing both might not be possible.
This was bound to happen sooner or later. In all likelihood the warnings have been on the radar of the White House and Pentagon for some time. Now the time is approaching when action must be taken. Del Toro stated the US is not to that point yet, but the supply chain will be stressed if the war in Ukraine lasts another six months. To be fair, the estimate should be more along the lines of 4 months in expectation of a possible major offensive by Russian forces in the spring.
The Pentagon has been pressuring defense contractors to increase production for some time now but the shortages continue and by recent accounts seem to be worsening. Let’s be fair. Keeping Ukraine supplied in wartime is a task that is causing problems and concerns on both sides of the Atlantic. A number of European nations have practically emptied their ammunition and weapons lockers and sent everything they could spare east. And then some. The flow of weapons and material to Ukraine has slowed, due in part at least to the reality that many European nations can’t afford to part with additional weapons, ammunition and other wartime materials.
Now US commanders and Pentagon officials are hinting that a similar situation could loom ahead for the US military. Not surprising in the least. But in the face of promises to assist Taiwan’s military buildup and the prospect of a clash with Chinese forces being accepted as possible, this is not the time for the US to contend with weapon delivery delays and such. At the end of the day, US national security trumps that of Ukraine.
Following the pre-G20 meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, as well as Xi’s apparent diplomatic outreach at the G20, China’s defense ministry is open to meeting with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at a gathering of ASEAN defense ministers in Cambodia set for Tuesday or Wednesday. An actual meeting between Austin and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe has not been officially scheduled, but it does seem likely the two defense chiefs will meet while in Cambodia. Austin and Wei have not met or communicated since China suspended dialogue with the US in August after Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. On the surface this appears to be the latest indication that relations between the US and China are moving in a more positive direction now.
Whether this holds true remains to be seen, but it’s evident that Beijing wants to at least be viewed as seeking a more productive relationship with the US and nations in the Western Pacific. For the domestic audience it portrays an image of China being treated as an equal. This has the potential to provide much needed political dividends for Xi down the line as the future of COVID-19 restrictions remains fluid. On the international stage the image of a less assertive and belligerent China should give Xi a temporary buffer and allow him to either deal with the slew of domestic matters or set the stage for the next phase of maneuvers on the geopolitical chessboard. Or both, perhaps.
Joe Biden and Xi Jinping will hold a face-to-face meeting on Monday in Indonesia just before the opening of the G20 summit. This will be the first in-person meeting between the US and Chinese leaders since Biden took office in January 2021 and comes at a point where Sino-US tensions are on the rise due to several issues from the war in Ukraine to Taiwan. Members of the Biden administration have said the purpose of the mini summit will be to set expectations. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters today that Biden “will get to sit in the same room with Xi Jinping, be direct and straightforward with him as he always is and expect the same in return from Xi.”
It is worth mentioning that Biden tried the same approach with Vladimir Putin in Switzerland back in the summer of 2021 and it failed miserably. Hence the Russia-Ukraine war currently raging.
For this go-around, the stakes are higher for the United States. Xi has consolidated his hold on power and appears to be chomping at the bit to confront the US should Washington decide on a policy of containment to hold back an expansionist move on the part of Xi and China. Biden placed himself and the nation in a corner when he publicly affirmed that the US will defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. That comment, coupled with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan sent US-China relations plummeting and introduced an period of Chinese military exercises around the island-nation as well as a round of attempted coercive diplomacy by Beijing around the Western Pacific.