Expert: Chinese spy balloon speaks to relationship between US, China

The discovery of the Chinese spy balloon over Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana and the subsequent shooting down of the balloon by the U.S. government made headlines for days, thanks in no small part to the political maelstrom it created.

From the perspective of Peter Bergen, however, the incident spoke to a larger story: the relationship between the U.S. and China, and how China’s surveillance efforts — including stealing design data of the F-35 fighter aircraft and appropriating personal information of more than 20 million Americans who were current or former members of the U.S. government — threaten to further damage that relationship.

ASU News spoke to Bergen, a professor of practice at Arizona State University and the co-director of the Center on the Future of War, about this timely topic.

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for lengthy and clarity.

Question: You wrote an article on CNN essentially saying the Chinese spy balloon wasn’t deserving, perhaps, of the hysteria that took place. Why is that?

Answer: Obviously, the Chinese have done much worse. The reports of them stealing the F-35 blueprints and building their own aircraft kind of speak for themselves. The fact they stole more than 20 million records of personal information from the Office of Personnel Management also speaks for itself. But in the piece, I also connected to this little-known office in the Pentagon called the All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office. Basically, it’s the UFO office of the Pentagon. There has been more of an effort by Congress and the Biden administration to identify these UFOs. And I can’t prove it to you, but I think it’s super interesting that when they sort of looked at more than 500 UFO sightings over the last few decades, many of which are very recent ones, more than 160 of them were balloons or balloon-like objects.

So what does that mean? We know the Trump administration did have at least three balloons come over. So they’ve been around for a long time now. I sort of think it was blown up, as it were, into perhaps a bigger story than it merited. It’s a story that everybody can understand because everybody can see the balloon. When the Chinese steal 21 million records from the Office of Personnel Management, it’s a boring story because there’s no visual. Or if they steal the F-35 blueprints, which cost I don’t know how many billions of dollars in the United States, that’s pretty valuable to them too. I think what the balloon story did was put in the American public’s mind that the Chinese are spying on us, and so, I think from that point of view, it was sort of useful.

Q: How would you characterize the relationship between the U.S. and China?

A: There has been a lot of continuity between the Trump administration and the Biden administration on their approach to China. The Trump administration ... got one big thing right on the foreign policy front, which is basically abandoning the idea that as we do more business with China, they’ll get richer and then they’ll liberalize. That idea clearly didn’t work. In fact, the reverse happened. The Biden administration has really kind of stayed the course. They’ve kept a lot of the Chinese tariffs up. They have continued freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea.

So relations between the U.S. and China are not good. The increasing encroachments that China has made in the South China Sea by building artificial islands and by claiming ownership of the entire sea is enormous. That’s contrary to international law. It’s also the most important area for global shipping in the world. So I think all that has produced a radical shift in the way that Americans and other people have sort of seen the Chinese, and even their trade policies.

Q: Just how big of a concern is the Chinese surveillance?

A: Chinese espionage and stealing of American intellectual property is a huge deal. If you look at the Trump national security strategy that was led by (Lt.) Gen. (H.R.) McMaster, who now has an association with ASU (McMaster is an ASU Distinguished University Fellow), they’re very clear about the scale of Chinese intellectual property theft, which is accomplished in lots of different ways. One of the ways that they do that is if you are an American company operating in China, you have to have a Chinese partner, and the Chinese partners will potentially steal your intellectual property. That’s certainly an area that’s a big concern.

Q: What can the U.S. government do to limit Chinese espionage?

A: The government can only do so much because so much of the intellectual property in the United States is not owned by the government. But we can all contribute to a more secure internet by having what ASU has, which is a double authentication process. The spying of the Office of Personnel Management by the Chinese shows they knew the office was a very weak link when it came to this important information, and that wouldn’t have been true in other government agencies. But it’s not just the Chinese who are doing this. The North Koreans, the Russians; there’s a whole bunch of American rivals that are trying to learn what they can, and it’s obviously a lot cheaper to have some guy in Beijing get inside somebody’s computer network than train up a spy and send them to the United States.

Q: Russia has been the world’s focus since it invaded Ukraine. But is China the bigger threat?

A: I think China is a much bigger threat potentially to the United States than Russia. Look, Russia’s economy is like the size of Italy. And China is the world’s second biggest economy (behind the U.S.). They also have a view of the world where they feel they’ve been humiliated for more than a century by the West. They want to, by their own account, restore their position as the world’s sort of leading power, which they had in the mid-19th century in their own mind. The Soviets have thousands of nuclear weapons, but their economy is in freefall. I think China is much more formidable.

Top photo: Shanghai, China, at night. Photo courtesy Pexels

Scott Bordow