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It’s easy to let your imagination run wild when it comes to the unidentified flying objects now making frequent appearances over North America. At least one object was reported to be cylindrical, eerily suggestive of past imagined visitors. “The cylinder was artificial — hollow — with an end that screwed out!” wrote H.G. Wells in “The War of The Worlds.” “Something within the cylinder was unscrewing the top!”
Maybe the Martians really are coming.
Alternatively, maybe the U.F.O.s that were shot down over Alaska, Canada and Lake Huron emerged from somewhere in China, just like the large balloon that was shot down on Feb. 4 off the South Carolina coast. There’s a lot we still don’t know, and the White House is being appropriately careful not to jump to conclusions. Maybe it’s the Russians, or something altogether innocent. But let’s think through the implications of the Made in China hypothesis.
Why would Beijing do it? The likeliest answer comes in the form of an old Leninist maxim: “Probe with bayonets. If you find mush, push.”
Balloons (if that’s in fact what the mystery aircraft really are, a point that remains unconfirmed) may hardly seem threatening like bayonets. But, as The Times reported last week, Beijing has sent balloons over more than 40 countries. Balloons can scrape up photographic and other data that reconnaissance satellites cannot. And they can operate in a zone known as “near space,” between 12 and 62 miles above the earth, that the Chinese military calls “a new battleground in modern warfare.”
Balloons could also expose gaps in what the Pentagon calls “domain awareness.” They do not move in predictable patterns, as satellites do, and they can more easily evade radar than most aircraft. They help an adversary find our blind spots, not just in terms of how we detect threats to national security but also in how we conceive of them.
The point is crucial — and too easily forgotten. In October 2000, a billion-dollar American destroyer, the U.S.S. Cole, was nearly sunk at dock in the Yemeni Port of Aden by a small fiberglass boat carrying high explosives. Less than a year later, nearly 3,000 people were killed on 9/11 when 19 hijackers turned commercial airliners into giant cruise missiles.
Both cases are examples of effective low-tech aggression. More important, they are also case studies about how a lack of imagination cripples our own defenses. We tend to think that our adversaries might act against us the way we would act against them: by using the most advanced technologies at our disposal. But part of Chinese military doctrine is based on the idea of Sha Shou Jian, or the “assassin’s mace” — an inferior power using weapons that can surprise and defeat a superior one. In that perspective, balloons operating in near space fit the paradigm.
Then there’s the possibility that Beijing operates this way because it has gotten away with so much worse.
Any person, or country, that spends decades brazenly spying and stealing without real consequence will probably spy and steal some more. In that perspective, too, balloons are just parts of a familiar Beijing pattern.
Finally, there’s Beijing’s policy of the ambiguous but probably calculated insult. Chinese officials greeted Barack Obama and his team with a chain of petty snubs during his last presidential visit to China, in 2016. Chinese foreign policy supremo Yang Jiechi took the opportunity to lecture Secretary of State Antony Blinken at length at their first meeting in 2021. The balloon that overflew Montana and other states arrived just before Blinken was supposed to visit Beijing in an effort to patch up relations.
Maybe there are explanations for each incident that amount to accidents of timing or trivial misunderstandings. But, again, the pattern adds up.
There’s a coda to the Leninist maxim about probing with bayonets. It concludes: “If you encounter steel, withdraw.” Vladimir Putin found little steel in Washington or European capitals after he invaded Georgia, seized Crimea and obliterated much of Syria. Beijing has found little steel as it has probed everywhere from the cyber domain to the South China Sea.
That needs to change. Announcing a multibillion-dollar arms sale to Taiwan is the place to start. Alternatively, if the U.F.O.s really are Martians, it might at least give both countries the opportunity to set their differences aside.