What’s Behind the Chinese Spy Balloon

Earlier this month, the United States shot down a Chinese spy balloon that had travelled over a large swath of North America. According to the Biden Administration, the balloon was “part of a larger Chinese surveillance-balloon program,” which the White House argued had violated the sovereignty of nations all over the world. The Chinese government accused the U.S. of overreacting, and signalled that it views the response as a sign of American decline. Secretary of State Antony Blinken cancelled a diplomatic trip to China that was to include meetings with high-level officials, including President Xi Jinping, who has amassed more power than any Chinese leader in a generation. (U.S. and Canadian authorities have shot down several more objects flying over the two countries in recent days, but there is no evidence of any connection between those objects and the Chinese balloon.)

To talk about China’s military strategy, and the future of U.S.-China relations, I recently spoke by phone with M. Taylor Fravel, a professor of political science at M.I.T. and the director of its Security Studies Program. He is also the author of “Active Defense: China’s Military Strategy Since 1949.” During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed how China has modernized its military during the past twenty-five years, how Xi has taken control of military policy, and why the diplomatic fallout from the balloon incident may be much more dangerous than the usual spy games.

There has been a lot of analysis indicating that Xi has brought about a new era in Chinese politics. Has China also entered a new military era?

In the past decade, the Chinese military has definitely entered a new era, but it reflects a series of decisions made earlier. In the late nineties, in the aftermath of the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Kosovo, during the air war there, a decision was made to modernize the Chinese military and completely reinvest in all platforms, across all systems. That kicked off well before Xi Jinping became General Secretary and chairman of the Central Military Commission. That dedication to building a modern military preceded Xi, but it has manifested on Xi’s watch, so to speak. We’re seeing how the ground forces, the rocket forces, the Navy, the Air Force, etc., are now, by and large, field-modern, capable platforms that simply didn’t exist two decades ago.

Moreover, halfway through Xi Jinping’s tenure, an effort was made to significantly reorganize the People’s Liberation Army (P.L.A.). It was the most significant organizational change to the P.L.A. since the nineteen-fifties. It basically shattered the general-staff system, which was anchored around four main departments, and set up a bunch of smaller departments and offices under the Central Military Commission itself. That was intended to better enable the P.L.A. to use all this hardware that had been developed, and principally to enhance its ability to be able to execute complex front operations that would combine elements from the different services.

Why do you think the bombing in Kosovo had this effect? Are the changes that you’re describing more circumstantial or ideological?

I guess I’m wondering what you mean by ideological. Not to be a pedantic professor . . .

I’m wondering whether the changes were brought about defensively, because of something that happened, or whether it was part of an ideological push to have a more forward-leaning posture—that it was going to occur regardless of circumstances.

It’s a bit of both. The air war on Kosovo was a real turning point for the P.L.A., because it led them to debate whether China would still exist in an era of peace and development, in which it would not have to prepare for the possibility of major armed conflict, and how hostile the United States might be to Chinese interests, given that this was an attack on a piece of sovereign Chinese territory. Even though the strike was unintentional and accidental, it nevertheless sparked this debate. But there’s an even broader context here.

China has always seen itself as a great power, and great powers want great militaries. Having a modern, capable military has been a long-standing ambition of multiple Chinese leaders, arguably going back even to the fifties, but certainly in the post-Cold War period. If we look at Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao (perhaps to a lesser extent), and Xi Jinping, they’ve all been strong advocates for modernizing the P.L.A., but that’s been a real challenge. At the end of the Cold War, the P.L.A. used very outdated equipment—technology from the sixties and seventies. It had a fairly low degree of mechanization of its ground forces. It did not have any fourth-generation fighter aircraft. It did not really have a great surface fleet. And, when the Gulf War happened, I think Chinese military leaders, as well as Chinese civilian leaders, realized that something quite profound was changing in how states were going to fight in the future.

That led them to change their strategy, in 1993, which meant pursuing this ability to be able to conduct joint operations, because they realized that’s what the United States was doing in the Gulf War. You also had a Taiwan Strait crisis in the mid-nineties, which I think many people focus on, or emphasize as the turning point in P.L.A. modernization. [In 1995 and 1996, China fired missiles around Taiwan in response to concerns that the island might declare independence; the United States responded by sending warships to the area.] Certainly, it was a very important event. I focus on the air war in Kosovo only because I think it helps clarify whatever concerns China might have had in the mid-nineties about the need to have a strong and independent military, in order to defend what China views as its interests.

By that point, of course, the United States was seen as potentially more hostile to China than it was at the end of the Cold War. That further reinforced this need to have a strong military, not because China is warlike and wants to go out and fight lots of wars but, rather, because it would backstop China’s diplomacy. It would allow China to use the threat of military force to advance its political interests, such as using a threat of an invasion or attack on Taiwan in order to deter Taiwanese independence, and so forth. And so the pieces fell in place by the late nineties. By then, China was even wealthier than it was at the beginning of that decade, and was thus able to devote even more resources to modernizing its armed forces. I wouldn’t call that ideological, necessarily. I think it’s a long-term secular trend across different generations of leaders in China to pursue this goal.

You mentioned that the military could be used to serve political objectives, but has the modernization of the P.L.A. driven Chinese international behavior in some way? I’m curious how you see the cause and effect there.

In the last five years, China, with a much more modern military, has many more options that it can draw from when it’s thinking about how to advance its interests. It can use displays of force to much greater effect than before. Ten or fifteen or twenty years ago, I don’t think we would see China run almost daily incursions into the air-defense-identification zone around Taiwan, which clearly are intended largely to have a political effect, in terms of underscoring China’s commitment to unification and efforts to deter independence. You see Chinese naval vessels circumnavigate the Japanese home islands as a way of demonstrating the country’s place in the region. And then you see more direct uses of force, such as the deployments along the border of India in the spring and summer of 2020.

When you have a more capable military, there’s a lot more you can do. You can also use it to elevate your status by conducting port calls on all continents around the world, by conducting joint exercises with not only countries in your home region, in East Asia, but also in other regions around the world. You can use it to signify a closer relationship with Russia by conducting joint exercises with them. Military modernization gives policymakers and decision-makers more tools with which to pursue their state’s interest.

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