What would China have done?
The Pentagon and the Pentagon are concerned about US and allied actions against China, with an emphasis on the February US/Austria jet attack
After a string of incidents last year involving intercepts of US and allied aircraft by Chinese warplanes, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the PLA’s actions were escalating and “should worry us all.”
The number of Chinese intercepts at sea and in the air have gone up considerably over the course of the past five years, Milley said.
The Biden administration is trying to counter China as a key priority, and Milley comments show how important that is. Pelosi is expected to lead a congressional delegation to Taiwan, an island that Beijing claims is its own territory.
President Joe Biden has suggested the US military believes a potential trip by Pelosi and other lawmakers would pose security risks. The Pentagon refused to say if officials briefed the California Democrat directly, but officials said they were worried about Chinese actions in the Pacific.
By launching the review, Milley is seeking to gain a detailed understanding of all interactions between the two militaries, especially any that could be deemed “unsafe” or “unprofessional” due to Chinese aircraft or ships operating too close to US military assets.
In one of the most serious recent incidents, the Australian government said in February that a Chinese warship allegedly used a laser to “illuminate” an Australian Air Force jet in what Canberra called a “serious safety incident.”
“Acts like this have the potential to endanger lives,” the Australian Defence Force said in a statement at the time, adding it strongly condemns the “unprofessional and unsafe military conduct.” In the past, pilots who have been targets by laser attacks have reported dizziness, headaches, and even temporary blindness.
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In his keynote speech, Austin said that indo-Pacific countries should not be harassed or intimidated by maritime militias.
China frequently challenges military aircraft from the U.S. and its allies, especially over the South China Sea, which China claims in its entirety. In 2001 a Chinese plane sank in the air after it was hit by another plane.
Earlier this month, a US Navy warship challenged Chinese claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea, the US 7th Fleet said in a statement – the second operation of its kind this week.
The incursions were made by 42 J-10, J-11, J-16 and Su-30 fighter jets, two Y-8 maritime patrol aircrafts, a KJ-500 early warning aircraft, as well as a CH-4 and a WZ-7 military drone, according to the Taiwanese defense ministry.
On Sunday the Chinese military’s Eastern Theater Command said it conducted combat readiness patrols around Taiwan in response to provocations between Taiwan and the United States.
The Taiwanese defense ministry said it had confidence in defending its sovereignty. “The actions of the Chinese Communist Party highlighted its mentality of using force to resolve differences, which undermines regional peace and stability,” it said.
On Friday, US President Joe Biden signed a sweeping new defense bill into law that included the establishment of a defense modernization program for Taiwan to deter Chinese aggression.
The cooperation between Taiwan and the United States will help safeguard the free, open and stable region. Based on enemy threats and self-defense needs, the military will continue to strengthen their military readiness.
Though still describing them as “infrequent actions,” the US Navy reported an uptick in unsafe intercepts by Chinese fighter jets last summer; in December 2022, a Chinese fighter jet flew just 20 feet in front of the nose of a US Air Force RC-135 surveillance plane carrying 30 crew over international waters in the South China Sea, forcing it to swerve to avoid a collision. This was just five weeks after the meeting between President Biden and President Xi in Bali during a G20 Summit — a meeting in which they pledged new mechanisms to stabilize the bilateral relationship.
China had previously halted climate talks due to Pelosi visiting Taiwan, but are expected to resume them this time as part of the larger agreement between Biden and Xi.
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A series of military drills by China was held last Friday close to the southern island of Okinawa in the Pacific Ocean.
The Chinese navy’s Liaoning aircraft carrier, as well as two destroyers and a frigate, sailed about 560 kilometers (about 348 miles) east of Kitadaito Island, located off Okinawa’s east coast, on December 21, according to Japan’s Joint Staff. The vessels also sailed roughly 120 kilometers (74 miles) east of Okinotorishima, located further southeast, on December 22.
Then on Friday, around 180 carrier-based fighter jets and helicopters took off and landed on the Liaoning aircraft carrier, according to Japan’s defense ministry.
Two escort ships were dispatched from Japan to collect information and conduct warning and vigilance, the ministry said.
Tensions between China and Japan have also been rising steadily, with Beijing growing its naval and air forces in areas near Japan. China also claims the Senkaku Islands, an uninhabited Japanese-controlled chain in the East China Sea.
Earlier this month, Japan unveiled a new national security plan that signals the country’s biggest military buildup since World War II, doubling defense spending and veering from its pacifist constitution in the face of growing threats China, North Korea and Russia.
A plane from the US conducted routine operations in international airspace over the South China Sea. It said the pilot was forced to take evasive maneuvers to avoid a collision.
On December 21, a Chinese Navy J-11 fighter jet flew within 20 feet of the nose of an RC-135 Rivet Joint, a US Air Force reconnaissance plane with about 30 people on board. In response, the RC-135 had to take “evasive maneuvers to avoid a collision,” INDOPACOM said in a statement Thursday.
It is not hard to imagine the Chinese military shooting down a US balloon over mainland China without hesitation, regardless of the risk to citizens or property. Beijing’s extensive global media apparatus would promote claims that the incursion exemplified US double standards regarding violations of sovereignty, with this narrative also seeded widely across Chinese social media channels. Any planned visits to the US by China’s foreign policy chief, like Secretary of State Blinken’s now-postponed trip to Beijing, would have been outright canceled.
“The U.S. Indo-Pacific Joint Force is dedicated to a free and open Indo-Pacific region and will continue to fly, sail and operate at sea and in international airspace with due regard for the safety of all vessels and aircraft under international law,” the statement said.
The U.S. and others have also accused China of harassing military aircraft and ships in the East China Sea off the Chinese coast and as far away as the Horn of Africa, where China operates a naval base.
On the US-Chinese connection between a fighter jet and a large plane: A panel discussion with An Australian Air Force Officer on the incident of the 135-foot intercept
Editor’s Note: A version of this story appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in China newsletter, a three-times-a-week update exploring what you need to know about the country’s rise and how it impacts the world. Sign up here.
CNN spoke to several aviation and military experts who said the Chinese aircraft appeared to be in the wrong place, and did not have reason to get as close as the American plane.
The 135 is a large, slow, non-maneuverable aircraft that was in international airspace. The responsibility of the smaller plane is to stay clear of the larger plane, not to cause a problem for them, according to a former Australian Air Force officer.
The intent of the intercept was apparently to identify the aircraft and the Fighter could have stayed several miles away and competed that task. He said that getting closer wouldn’t bring any gains.
“The (Chinese) response is so far divorced from reality that it is fictional. An airliner-sized aircraft does not turn into a fighter in a hurry.
But Hopkins also said the US military risked blowing the incident out of proportion in saying the US jet had to take “evasive maneuvers,” a term he described as “overly dramatic.”
“These are no different than a driver adjusting her position to avoid a temporary lane incursion by an adjacent driver,” Hopkins said. The US response is unnecessary and creates an exaggerated sense of danger.
“Flying aircraft close to each other at 500 miles per hour with unfriendly intentions is generally unsafe,” said Blake Herzinger, a nonresident fellow and Indo-Pacific defense policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
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“It’s worth remembering that the PLA has effectively wrecked any kind of hotlines or discussion forums for addressing potential incidents with the United States. If an intercept does go wrong, there are fewer options than ever for senior officers to limit potential escalation,” he said.
But in a regular press briefing on Friday, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the incident was just the latest in a string of US provocations that threaten stability in the region.
The Chinese Southern Theater Command said the US reconnaissance jet was flying “in the vicinity of China’s southern coastline and the Xisha Islands” – known in the West as the Paracels – where Beijing has built up military installations.
The most famous incident of 2001 was when a Chinese fighter jet crashed into a US plane close to the Chinese mainland, killing the US pilot and sparking a major crisis. The US crew was released after 11 days of intense negotiations.
In her previous position, Beth Sanner oversaw the elements that coordinate and lead collection, analysis, and program oversight throughout the Intelligence Community. She was the president’s intelligence briefer in this role. She is a professor-of-practice at the Applied Research Lab for Intelligence and Security at the University of Maryland and a CNN national security analyst. Her opinions are her own in this commentary. View more opinion on CNN.
Let me remember to put the balloon incident in perspective. I am not saying that the US should turn their backs on each other. However, we all need to begin to better differentiate threats posed by various Chinese actions; US officials must calmly evaluate the situation at hand (or in the sky) and respond based on both the immediate risk and US strategic interests. I fear that the current mood in Washington is making Chinese activity even more threatening.
In late 2016, the Chinese seized an unmanned US Navy underwater vehicle in international waters in the South China Sea, just 50 nautical miles from Subic Bay in the Philippines, and hundreds of miles from China. There were disagreements over leasing costs that led to the withdrawal of the largest US naval base in Asia, Subic Bay, in 1992. The incident was widely believed to have been a message to President-elect Donald Trump, just two weeks before his inauguration and several weeks after he angered Beijing by taking a congratulatory call from Taiwan’s president. Beijing will return the craft three days later, but never apologized and accused the US of espionage.
Jiang Zemin blamed the collision on the US. Nearly two months elapsed before the two sides reached agreement for the return of the aircraft. Having removed and refused to return the plane’s hardware, software and communications equipment, the Chinese insisted the EP-3 be dismantled and transported by a third party at the US’s expense. The Bush Administration was charged $1 million for the costs associated with the incident, including for detaining the plane’s crew. Washington countered with an offer of more than $34,000 that China wouldn’t pay and still never apologized.
Meanwhile, defense officials insist that the US learned more about the balloon’s capabilities by allowing it to pass over the United States than they would have by shooting it down immediately — a decision that some lawmakers on Capitol Hill have criticized as a counterintelligence threat.
Peter Bergen: A CNN National Security Analyst on the Status of the United States Air Force, and his role in the Grand Unified View of the World
If you listen closely, you can already hear the war drums beating, and I’m waiting for the hyperbole to reach new heights as we move closer to the 2024 election: who will be the toughest on China of them all? The rise in anti- Asian rhetoric and violence in the US in recent years should not make China bashing a new brand of McCarthyism.
Let’s put together a plan to hold China accountable, but allow room for needed dialogue. If we follow Beijing’s lead it will surely be a race to the bottom, making it harder to avoid what we all wish to avoid — military conflict with China.
Peter Bergen is a CNN national security analyst, New America vice president, and professor of practice at Arizona State University. Bergen is the author of “The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World.” The views he expresses in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
My father was in the US Air Force in the mid-1950s and was involved in a program to send balloons into Soviet airspace.
In 1954 he was assigned to Headquarters Air Material Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. There he worked on the “Grand Union” project, which deployed balloons that carried cameras over the then-Soviet Union. The spy balloons were launched from Turkey.
My dad didn’t talk about this part of his career much, likely because the work was secret, but the program has long since been declassified since it happened around seven decades ago.
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Spy balloons are some really old technology, folks. Using them is like bringing a well-sharpened ax to the Afghan War; maybe it could have done something, but a 2,000-pound bomb would likely have a larger effect on the enemy. The balloon was not used for espionage, according to China.
Now the United States and its rivals have these new-fangled gizmos called “spy satellites,” which can take photos! They can do full-motion video! They can take thermal imagery at night to see who is moving around. With a resolution of centimeters, they can see a lot when the skies are clear.
Satellite imagery is getting cheaper and you can get your own close-up images of a battle group in Ukraine, just by buying your own commercial imagery. Two months ago, Maxar Technologies was acquired for $6 billion by a private equity firm, and they had built up a profitable business on this model.
A part of the report that was published by the US Office of Director of National Intelligence last month may be explained by this.
The report examined more than 500 reports of unidentified objects in the sky over the past two decades, many of them reported by US Navy and US Air Force personnel and pilots. The All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office is a fancy office that tries to see if there is any truth in the reports.
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But China has arguably done much worse. US officials have accused it of benefiting from the work of hackers who stole design data about the F-35 fighter aircraft as China builds its own new generation of fighters – and of sucking up much of the personal information of more than 20 million Americans who were current or former members of the US government when they reportedly got inside the computers of the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in 2015. China denied that they were responsible for the OPM hacking.
CNN has asked the Chinese Embassy in Washington for comment on the suggestion that the balloon that was shot down is part of a wider surveillance program.
Roughly half a dozen of those flights have been within US airspace – although not necessarily over US territory, according to one official familiar with the intelligence.
There aren’t all of the same balloons that the one shot down Saturday off the coast of South Carolina was similar to, according to an intelligence official and another source. Rather, there are multiple “variations,” these people said.
The link to the broader surveillance program, which was uncovered before the latest balloon was spotted last week, was first reported by the Washington Post.
Meanwhile at a government lab in Quantico, Virginia, an elite team of FBI engineers is poring over the remnants of the recovered balloon, trying to learn everything it can about the intelligence it may have gathered and how best to track surveillance balloons in the future.
And perhaps critically, the investigators will be looking at what digital signatures it emitted to see if they provide a better way for the US to track this kind of balloon in the future. The commander of US Northern Command, Gen. Glen VanHerck, acknowledged to reporters on Monday that the US had a “domain awareness gap” that had allowed past balloons to cross into US airspace undetected.
In a statement Friday, China expressed “regret” over the downed vessel but maintained that it was a weather balloon thrown off course.
Multiple defense officials, as well as other sources briefed on the intelligence, have said that the Chinese explanation is not credible and that the balloon’s path was intentional.
This elite team consists of agents, analysts, engineers and scientists, who are responsible for both creating technical surveillance measures and analyzing those of the US’ adversaries.
OTD personnel, for example, construct surveillance devices used by FBI and intelligence community personnel targeting national security threats — but they also are responsible for managing court-authorized data collection and work to defeat efforts by foreign intelligence agencies to penetrate the US.
According to one member of the House Intelligence Committee, there were many reasons why we wouldn’t do that. You want to see what it’s going for and we want to collect off it.
The US has procedures in place to protect sensitive locations from overhead surveillement, like a digital black out.