The US is facing a foe that is increasingly its equal.
THE US Air Force shot down a Chinese balloon off the coast of South Carolina on February 4 in an act that was required to prevent surveillance and to preserve civil aviation safety.
The surveillance concern was highlighted by the payload the balloon was carrying.
And while this column was written six days prior to publishing (February 27) – by which point further answers may be available – it is highly likely the payload included surveillance equipment.
The airspace safety issue is a legitimate concern. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has clear rules regarding entering US airspace, defined under Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).
It defines that: “All aircraft entering US domestic airspace from points outside must provide for identification prior to entry or exit.” CFR includes provisions for interceptions, and special clearances and waivers.
Put simply, it should be no surprise to the Chinese authorities that an airborne asset in foreign airspace was shot down, particularly when it was determined it was unmanned. If it was manned, it would likely have been escorted to land.
Other airborne objects have been shot down in Canada and the US since that initial interception, although US President Joe Biden last week said these were not believed to be of Chinese origin and were more likely commercial or private concerns.
China’s response to the shooting down of its balloon was firstly to claim it was a weather radar. Spokespeople have since drawn attention to US balloons in Chinese airspace, in some cases citing 10 events, and in other reports citing hundreds of incursions.
This assertion is polluted by the potentially inconsistent definition of Chinese territory between the parties. The White House subsequently denied the deflection by the Chinese, declaring it false that the US has operated surveillance balloons over China.
This is not the first issue in the skies between China and the US.
In April 2001, a US Navy aircraft, a P-3 Orion, on a routine reconnaissance mission in the South China Sea, collided with a Chinese fighter jet that had flown aggressively close to the US aircraft. A mid-air collision occurred, killing the Chinese pilot and forcing the US aircraft to land in Chinese territory at Hainan Island, 112 kilometres from the incident.
The landing led to the crew being detained for 11 days and questioned. They were released following the publication of a letter of regret from the US. The US was even permitted to recover the aircraft, albeit after it was dismantled and flown via cargo aircraft to a US base.
This incident has been well documented by national security journalist Kim Zetter at The Intercept, who has utilised official redacted reports on the incident, unredacted leaked documents, and a 2001 Congressional Research Service summary of this incident.
This was not the end of the airspace issues. On August 19 2014, a Chinese jet is described as aggressively intercepting a US Navy P-8 aircraft, again near Hainan Island in the South China Sea.
The Chinese jet made manoeuvres dangerously close to the US aircraft, including crossing in front to show the weapons on the underside of the Chinese jet.
The Obama administration made formal complaints to the Chinese, characterising the conduct as unsafe and unprofessional, and sought to reestablish rules of military-to-military engagement.
The result was the US-China Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on the Rules of Behavior for the Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters.
While a promising development, critics argue this will not, and has not, prevented further issues, directing attention to fundamental disagreement of what is and isn’t Chinese territory as the underlying element that frames militaryto-military engagement in the South China Sea.
The point here is that airspace incursions are not new; the fact it happened in US airspace is the newsworthy element.
Australia’s response, via Australian Security Intelligence Organisation director general of security Mike Burgess at a recent Senate Estimates appearance, was that it is unlikely for logistical reasons that Chinese balloons are present in Australian airspace. It is obviously a fair assumption that Australia is surveilled via other means, just as Australia has and does surveil others.
The uncomfortable truth in this incident is that our largest ally is now faced with a foe that is increasingly its equal. Airborne surveillance in US airspace is sensational because it signals new capabilities to further strategic intentions. For the Chinese, perhaps detection is worthwhile if that is the message it delivers.
- Kristian Constantinides is the general manager of Airflite, and chairperson of AIDN-WA; the opinions expressed are purely his own