The spy balloon fiasco is not just a misstep by China. A mistake repeated is a decision, writes Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho. This neatly sums up the problem because China has been repeating mistakes in its foreign relations that are difficult to understand. If these are indeed decisions rather than mistakes, dealing with China is likely to be a lot harder. Something is clearly broken about China’s decision-making process.
We can likely dismiss claims that the balloon was on a scientific or weather-related mission. If that were so, there was little reason for China to not be open about it earlier. It could have informed the countries it was likely to be flying over, especially if it was blown off course. Moreover, reports of multiple balloons, including one over South America and earlier ones over the US during the Trump presidency, suggest this was no innocent error.
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Beyond the spy charge
If it was a spying mission, several other obvious technical questions come up. For one, why would China use such apparently low technology methods when it has spy satellites that are easier to control, can do multiple passes over the same location and probably has sensors that are as good or better than on the balloon in question? Two, why would China use balloons which are slow and seemingly visible from the ground? The brazenness of these actions is rather difficult to understand. The absence of objections in the past may have emboldened Beijing.
China and others argue that the US has also sent spy balloons over its skies, and that the US aircraft snoop around its territory. But the US doesn’t send such flights over Chinese territories as the South China Seas is not Chinese territory, whatever China may claim. But spying itself is not the issue here. All countries indulge in such acts, not just on enemies but also on friends. Spying is an understandable aspect of international politics. But if it is publicly revealed, it leaves the victim with little choice but to be outraged, however hypocritical it is to condemn actions you are yourself engaged in.
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For China, the more serious implications are political, and they will persist after the current hullabaloo dies down. In an increasingly bipolar competition, such crises are inevitable. One of the essential ingredients of such confrontations are fear and suspicion of each other, which lead to imputing aggressive motives to even innocent mistakes. Although the balloon incident does not belong to the category of ‘innocent mistakes’. Of course, such crises may happen between any two countries. But when competing polar powers are involved, they are likely to become more frequent, leading to an accumulation of grievances.
Because it’s China, the US could not have ignored this. When the culprit is your direct peer competitor, no leniency is likely to be shown. Moreover, it is unlikely that even if the US had been lenient—such as by going ahead with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s planned trip to Beijing—China likely would not have responded positively. Polar power competitions are bitter and petty and we are likely to see much more of this in the coming years.
This competition will also be intense and all encompassing, and it will spread to other areas too, as both powers seek to pull in support for themselves and undermine the support that the other side has among the nonaligned. This means the bipolar competition could also turn into a Cold War. Hopefully, we will not end up with a parallel Cuban missile crisis before both powers recognise that they need to calm down in their own interest and carry out even their bitter competition with some basic rules.
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The decision-making crisis
Beyond the effects on the rest of the world, the balloon crisis also raises questions about Chinese decision-making. It raises old questions regarding past Chinese behavior. There are uncomfortable similarities vis a vis Beijing’s aggressive behavior toward India, Taiwan, in the South China Sea, its wolf warrior diplomacy and coercive trade practices. Why does China engage in such self-destructive and strategically foolish behavior? We have to revisit old questions that previous episodes of Chinese foolishness have raised.
If we assume this action was ordered by the Chinese political leadership in Beijing, the question would be why would they engage in such risky behaviour. Was the Chinese leadership unaware of the risks involved? Either way, this does not bode well for China’s relations with others. For example, would they launch a war because the leadership is either oblivious of the risks or accepting because they are optimistic about their ability to handle it? This indicates deep flaws in their decision-making and that alternate, cautious viewpoints are not welcomed in the top echelons of the Chinese decision-making.
Another puzzle here is the apparent lack of a feedback loop, which would consider previous poor decisions and seek to avoid that in the future. On this, it is very clear that Chinese decision-making processes are broken. Chinese leaders appear to be getting no feedback about the negative consequences of the country’s behavior. Wolf warrior diplomacy, aggression in Ladakh and pressure on South China Sea and Taiwan, have all failed. It has driven countries in the region into either regional or extra-regional partnerships with the US. Thus strengthening Beijing’s main adversary.
If no assessment of such mistakes has been made in Beijing, it might suggest that these foolish decisions are high level ones. Beijing leadership would have taken action against lower level decision makers if they had screwed up so badly China’s diplomacy and standing in the global order. Alternatively, it is possible China has an inherent incapacity at self-reflection. Such isolation from negative policy feedback is probably the most dangerous consequence of China’s broken decision-making.
Such behaviour may also suggest a deliberate strategy to test other’s resolve. If so, it’s pretty foolish, dangerous and indeed childish, and it won’t work because no country can avoid responding to an open challenge. This explains why most Chinese actions such as trade coercion have failed so far.
Or is it possible that lower-level commands are sufficiently autonomous that they can order such missions that badly impact China’s relations with others, without referring to higher authorities? This suggests a different form of broken decision-making. There has been some speculation that this was what happened in the Galwan attack. If true, this also suggests the likelihood of further Chinese decisions and actions.
Whatever the reasons for such poor strategic decisions, the balloon episode suggests that China has yet to recognise the problem, let alone rectify it. This does not bode well for anyone, especially China’s neighbours—India included.
The author is a professor of International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. He tweets @RRajagopalanJNU. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)