China’s Threat Is about More Than Balloons
Americans are outraged over the Chinese spy balloon that wafted gently over American airspace, apparently transmitting extensive data back to Beijing. New reports of other aerial objects being shot-down by our Air Force are making additional headlines.
While these things raise alarms, they point to a larger issue: China is pressing America in every way it can. And in terms of global influence, even dominance, China is playing for keeps. China’s internal policies, including extensive religious persecution, political repression, and the denial of basic human rights, foster rightful indignation. But on the international stage, China is playing an equally unsettling role.
First, there’s the “Belt and Road” initiative, launched in 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Belt and Road is “a vast network of railways, energy pipelines, highways, and streamlined border crossings.” In total, 151 countries are now in some way involved in the program.
China’s interest in this historically unprecedented effort is, understandably, driven by economic self-interest. China wants to ensure greater access to international markets and bolster sustained economic growth. But China’s interest is more than the relatively benign objective of economic stability. Through the Belt and Road program, China has gained access to “raw materials and agricultural commodities (and) raw minerals.” China is “dominating the processing of minerals such as rare earths, cobalt, and lithium.” China is also working on major oil refining projects in places like Iran and Venezuela.
Additionally, the Belt and Road initiative is, as many analysts have noted, a “debt trap” for developing nations in Asia and Africa. As Tom Duesterberg of the Hudson Institute has noted, “Forty-two emerging market economies now have debts to Chinese lenders … exceeding 10 percent of GDP. These numbers do not account for the ‘hidden debt’ in which China specializes and does not report.” Put another way, China has succeeded in getting many already poor countries deeply in her debt.
Then there’s China’s relentless program of international espionage. According to FBI Director Christopher Wray, “The greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information and intellectual property, and to our economic vitality, is the counterintelligence and economic espionage threat from China.” Wray says China is “targeting our innovation, our trade secrets, our intellectual property” — ranging from high-tech to health care, aviation secrets to advances in agricultural science — “on a scale that’s unprecedented in history. They have a bigger hacking program than that of every other major nation combined. They have stolen more of Americans’ personal and corporate data than every nation combined.” The FBI estimates that China’s “counterfeit goods, pirated software, and theft of trade secrets” costs the United States as much as $600 billion annually.”
Finally, China’s military is a gathering threat. China has an increasingly potent conventional military and is expanding capacities as a space, naval, and air power. It imposes serious technological threats, including in such areas as cyber espionage and other computer operations. As Heritage Foundation scholar Dean Cheng argues, China imposes a threat to America’s homeland and could well draw the U.S. into regional warfare, “including potential attacks on overseas U.S. bases as well as against allies and friends.” Taiwan comes quickly to mind.
Additionally, China seems also willing to contest American resolve in other arenas where our security and essential interests are served. Late last year, Navy Admiral Charles A. Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, issued a grave warning about China. “As I assess our level of deterrence against China, the ship is slowly sinking. It is sinking slowly, but it is sinking, as fundamentally they are putting capability in the field faster than we are.” The admiral concluded that unless America’s military takes action soon, “China is simply going to outcompete us.”
U.S. Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss), ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said earlier this month that China has not been hiding its ambitions. “For decades,” he said, Beijing has “been active and aggressive in expanding its claims of sovereignty and territory.” Today, he concluded, China “continues to make egregious territorial claims in the South and East China Sea — all in the name of expanding the reach of the Chinese Communist Party.”
However tough President Biden likes to talk, our waning military edge disinvites confidence in his ability to project the power we need to keep China not just at bay but on notice. His response to such Chinese provocations as allowing a gigantic spy balloon to enter American airspace without a peep projects weakness, not strength. This perception dates to Biden’s humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, arguably the worst foreign policy blunder of the post-Cold War era. His precipitous failure shook friends and heartened our enemies.
Nothing speaks more powerfully to our adversaries than a military that cannot be challenged. Whether our policymakers are willing to make some hard choices in the coming months to restore that position is one of the most significant questions facing our country now and in the foreseeable future.
Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Lecturer in Regent University's Honors College.