China Spy Balloon Controversy: The CCP’s Civil-Military Integration Strategy

The Chinese spy balloon.

The suspected Chinese spy balloon flies in the sky over Billings, Montana, on February 1, in this picture obtained from social media. (Image: Chase Doak via YouTube)

Recently, the Chinese Communist Party spy balloon incident sparked a major uproar in the United States. The spy balloon, which had been floating over the U.S. for four days, along with the continued coverage by mainstream media in the U.S., demonstrated to the American public what the “China Threat Theory” was all about.

Please watch this video report by the China Observer about the incident:

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In the afternoon of February 4, the U.S. military finally shot down the stray spy balloon over the Atlantic Ocean. The spy balloon incident has caused ripples in US-China relations, leading to the cancellation of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to China on February 5. This has diminished the prospects of a thaw in US-China diplomatic relations and could have far-reaching impacts on the relationship between the two nations.

The inconsistent statements and inadequate handling by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in this controversy have exposed its true nature and heightened global awareness of its threat to the world.

China’s spy balloon

We will first briefly review the events; on February 1, the United States Montana residents photographed a high-altitude balloon. Then, on February 2, senior U.S. defense officials confirmed that this was a spy balloon from China, and the news quickly hit the headlines of major media, triggering widespread public concern.

It was then revealed that the spy balloon entered U.S. airspace in Alaska on January 28, Canadian airspace on January 30, and then re-entered U.S. airspace over northern Idaho on January 31. The White House initially chose to keep the incident under wraps, only revealing it to the public after the media exposed it.

On February 3, U.S. Secretary of State Blinken spoke with Wang Yi, the CCP’s Director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, and stated that the presence of the surveillance balloon is “a violation of [U.S.] sovereignty…, a violation of international law, and it was essential that [U.S.]…. make clear to China that again this is an unacceptable as well as irresponsible action.” He then chose to indefinitely delay his planned visit to Beijing, which was scheduled for February 5.

Video stills of the Chinese spy balloon after being hit with an AIM-9X anti-air missile fired from an F-22 Raptor on February 4, 2023.
Video stills of the Chinese spy balloon after being hit with an AIM-9X anti-air missile fired from an F-22 Raptor on February 4, 2023. (Image: via US Navy)

On the evening of February 3, the Pentagon reported that a second Communist spy balloon had been sighted over Latin America and that a third spy balloon may be active near the United States. Still, it did not provide specifics on its location. On February 6, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning admitted that the second “unmanned airship” also came from China and claimed it was civilian and was used for flight tests. 

At 2:39 p.m. on February 4, a US Air Force F-22 fighter jet shot down a balloon by firing an Aim-9X rattlesnake missile at about 17,700 meters.

Let’s examine the reaction from the Chinese side. First, Mao Ning, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, stated on February 3 that Beijing was “verifying” the situation and that speculation and sensationalism would not contribute to a proper resolution of the issue.

A report issued by the CCP’s official mouthpiece, The Global Times, on February 3 also quoted several Chinese experts as questioning the incident, saying it was “nonsense” and that the U.S. might have “directed the incident itself” to defame China, suggesting that the U.S. “shoot it down” before blaming other countries.

However, on the evening of February 3, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that a Chinese civilian research “unmanned airship” had recently deviated from its intended course due to the effects of the western winds and that “China regrets that the airship was misdirected into the United States due to force majeure.”

After the CCP admitted that the balloon did come from China, the report from Huan Qiu can still be found online, but it displays error 404 if clicked. The article can still be found in other Chinese media.

Regarding the U.S. announcement to postpone Blinken’s visit to China: The spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said neither China nor the U.S. had announced any holidays. The U.S. side’s announcement is its own business, and we respect it. 

But according to the Chinese official media report on January 17, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Wang Wenbin said that China welcomes U.S. Secretary of State Blinken’s visit to China, and the two countries are discussing the specific arrangements.

A few hours after the U.S. military shot down the spy balloon, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a local statement on the morning of February 5, expressing strong dissatisfaction with the U.S. shooting down its balloon.

The recovery of the spy balloon wreckage is still underway. According to multiple media sources, the platform supporting the spy balloon is approximately the size of three buses. It has solar panels, cameras, radar, sensors, and communication equipment. It is estimated to weigh several thousand pounds.

Simultaneously, details about the manufacturer of the spy balloon and the utilization of balloons by the Chinese Communist Party’s military have also come to light.

The company that produced the spy balloon was China Zhuzhou Rubber Research & Design Institute Co. Ltd. The company’s website shows a company profile showing that it is the designated research institution for all kinds of meteorological balloons for the CCP’s People’s Liberation Army troops.

In addition, it has a weaponry scientific research and production license and a weapon equipment research and production second-Level confidential qualification certificate. Furthermore, it states that it is the only professional research institute in the latex industry in China. 

Pieces of the suspected Chinese spy balloon were recovered off the coast of South Carolina.
Pieces of the suspected Chinese spy balloon were recovered off the coast of South Carolina. (Image: via US Navy)

The company’s military support products were utilized in the “Shenzhou No. 5” spacecraft and received a commendation from the General Armaments Department of the People’s Liberation Army. Given this information, we can see that this is a military company.

Interestingly, one day after famous Chinese author and human rights activist Jennifer Zeng tweeted this news, the company deleted all content on its website, including the company profile and product introduction. Fortunately, Ms. Zeng made a backup on her website and made an English translation of the relevant information for interested viewers.

Further, Chinese media reports that the Zhuzhou Rubber Research & Design Institute Co., Ltd has been developing weather balloons since 2003. 

The Chinese Communist Party claimed that the shot-down balloon was a civilian facility used for meteorological research. To support this claim, Zhuang Guotai, Head of the China Meteorological Administration, was sacked on February 3, deliberately creating the impression that he “is accepting responsibility for the balloon incident.” 

However, he took on the role of Party Secretary of the Gansu Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) on January 11. 

Furthermore, under the Chinese Communist Party’s political system, the China Meteorological Administration is not a corporate entity but a public institution under the State Council responsible for the administration of meteorological work in the country.

Additionally, by national security law, all public or private enterprises must fulfill national security duties. Therefore, even if the balloon did belong to the Meteorological Administration, it is still highly possible for it to be used for military surveillance. 

The use of civilian facilities for military missions has long existed. For example, we had previously reported that China had used trawlers as armed fishing militias in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait to carry out missions that the army had difficulties completing. U.S. media have also claimed that the Chinese Communist Party has been using civilian trawlers for military purposes for decades. 

There is evidence that in 2015, Xi Jinping proposed a national strategy for civil-military integration, advocating for using civilian infrastructure, construction, and logistics for military purposes.

The key technologies involved in developing this strategy include quantum computing, big data, semiconductors, 5G, advanced nuclear technology, aerospace technology, and artificial intelligence. Huawei and Xiaomi are typical examples of civil-military integration. However, since 2011, Huawei has been rejected by many countries, who have accused the company of conducting espionage on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party. 

Chinese companies have been acquiring agricultural land in the U.S. for several years. However, the proximity of these lands to sensitive U.S. military bases has raised heightened concerns about U.S. national security, suggesting that the Chinese Communist Party may be using the cover of private entities for military espionage.

An ultra-nationalist Chinese website, Guancha, published an article on February 28, 2022, acknowledging the discovery of military spy balloons over Taiwan and admitting that “military balloons are not just a fabrication.”

At the Zhuhai Airshow 2021, the China Aviation Industry, China Electronics Technology Group Corporation, and China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation demonstrated several high-altitude tethered spy balloons carrying radar optical detection equipment. 

According to media reports, a senior U.S. defense official has also pointed out that China has a “fleet” of spy balloons, some of which have been spotted in the skies of 5 continents, including East Asia, South Asia, Europe, etc. He said that these spy balloons aimed to gather intelligence and trespass into other countries under the direction of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. These operations violate the sovereignty of other countries. 

After the U.S. army shot down the spy balloon on February 5, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Defence, Tan Kefei, protested the action and emphasized that China reserves the right to “take necessary measures to handle similar situations.”

Sailors assigned to Assault Craft Unit 4 prepare material recovered in the Atlantic Ocean from a high-altitude spy balloon for transport to federal agents at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek on February 10, 2023. (Image: via US Navy)

Some online users criticized it, saying: “If it was truly a civilian balloon, why is the Ministry of Defence condemning the action? Is it because you are harboring intentions that can’t bear daylight?”

From all the information above, it appears that this balloon isn’t a civilian weather monitoring device, as claimed by Chinese officials. Instead, a U.S. official has already stated that this is a Chinese surveillance spy balloon flying over the U.S. near many potentially sensitive sites.

This spy balloon also carried surveillance equipment not used in standard meteorological activities or civilian research. China could “actively manipulate the spy balloon to fly over specific locations,” as evidenced by the balloon’s flight pattern, small engines, and propellers. 

Let’s analyze the impact of this controversy on the US-China relationship. 

Firstly, the presence of the spy balloon over a sensitive U.S. military site is perceived as a severe provocation to the United States. The Pentagon also described the Chinese spy balloon as a “clear violation” of U.S. sovereignty and an “unacceptable breach.” 

As a result, Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled his planned visit to China on February 5. This was to have been Blinken’s first trip to China since taking office and would have been the highest-ranking official visit to China since the Biden administration assumed power two years prior.

The mission of Blinken’s visit was to ease the sharp decline in relations between the U.S. and China caused by trade disputes and the Taiwan Strait crisis, as well as possibly meet with China’s president Xi Jinping. 

The Chinese Communist Party, especially Xi Jinping, in the face of internal and external pressure, is keen to strengthen interaction and improve relations with the U.S. and to address the US-led export control of semiconductors to China.

To coincide with Blinken’s visit to China, the People Daily changed its usual anti-American stance. Instead, it published three consecutive articles, starting on February 1, advocating the win-win cooperation between China and the U.S. to ease Sino-US tensions. 

According to some analysts, as long as Blinken set foot on Chinese soil, the Communist regime would have been able to declare a public “victory,” something that the Beijing government, grappling with numerous dire domestic and international crises, was desperately seeking. However, these plans have been thwarted, leading to a significant diplomatic crisis and further escalating the tense relationship between the United States and China.

Additionally, this spy balloon incident has placed the Biden administration under intense pressure from American public opinion and the Republican Party, likely leading to a heightened confrontation with the Chinese Communist Party. This may result in limited negotiation opportunities on critical issues such as the Taiwan Strait and technology controls.

According to Chinese historian and commentator Professor Zhang Tianliang, the Chinese Communist Party’s habit of lying and backtracking on their statements has exposed the truth about the threat they pose to the world. As a result, the Party’s efforts to improve relations with the West and resolve their economic difficulties are at risk of failure.

Professor Zhang also emphasized that the spy balloon incident has become equivalent to a de-facto military conflict between China and the U.S., putting countries in a difficult position to take sides.

European nations, for instance, are gradually distancing themselves from the Chinese Communist Party due to a loss of trust and the high risk of supporting China and potentially losing assets if the US-China conflict escalates and sanctions are imposed. This delicate situation could further deteriorate the already struggling Chinese economy.

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