US Navy recovers the remnants of the Chinese spy balloon that flew over North America before being shot down off Myrtle Beach along the Atlantic coast on February 5.

The Chinese Spy Balloon: A Provocation or a Logical Move?

Most of the discussion about the Chinese spy balloon shot down off South Carolina in early February is on the balloon’s design, its intended purposes, and how many others were there?

But there’s another question. Why would the People’s Republic of China send balloons over the United States, knowing they would probably be detected ー and cause a brouhaha? Even if this balloon was blown off course by high altitude winds, other Chinese balloons have been spotted – including over Guam and the US missile test range on Kauai in recent times.

Xi Jinping hasn’t confided in me, but maybe it’s not so hard to understand.

The Fat Man at the Buffet

The PRC often reminds one of a fat man at the buffet table who spots a fresh tray of eclairs. He knows he doesn’t need them, but he just can’t help himself. So he slides the entire tray onto his plate. He overreaches.

This is not just a Chinese communist thing. Plenty of American businessmen enter joint ventures in the PRC, expecting mutual benefits and a fair share of the profits. “Win-win” as the Chinese might say. And they soon discover their Chinese partner aims to take over the whole operation – and does so – despite a rock-solid joint venture agreement.

US government and military negotiators are also familiar with the ‘fat man at the buffet’ behavior. Back when the People’s Liberation Army was invited to the RIMPAC exercise – despite plenty of misgivings on the US side, the PLA officers attending the planning conference insisted the PRC have the co-equal role with the Americans in the exercise. Not exactly how you make a good impression.

This lack of restraint can have strategic effects. Case in point: If the PRC had kept up its charm offensive of the 2000’s for another five years they might have ‘won.’ Most countries in the Asia-Pacific region were saying that United States warnings (such as they were) were overwrought. And since China was not a threat there was no need to improve their own military capabilities.

Even US military officers were saying the same thing. Remember Admiral Thomas Keating, then- INDOPACOM commander, offering in 2009 to help the Chinese Navy figure out aircraft carriers?

All Beijing had to do was ‘bide it’s time.’ But it couldn’t.

Admiring the Trickster

A Western lawyer in Hong Kong explained to me a decade ago how the Chinese admire the trickster. Someone who makes outrageous demands ー and even tries to do things that are clearly illegal. If they get away with it they are admired even more…. and if they get caught… well…. at least they tried.

Strange behavior? Don’t we sometimes admire the ‘lovable rogue’?

The Americans Won’t Do Anything

The PRC might also have fairly thought the Americans wouldn’t do anything ー being so keen to get the bilateral relationship back on track. Except for a few years during the Trump era, over the last four or five decades Beijing has pretty much gotten away unscathed, no matter what it does.

Steal 23 million US government employee files from the Office of Personnel Management? Nothing. Take over the South China Sea? Nothing. Steal US Navy underwater drones? Nothing. Send balloons over Guam? Nothing. And over Barking Sands? Nothing.

Do you think we’d have heard about the balloon if a Montanan hadn’t looked upwards and taken a picture? Vegas would give you odds that the Biden Administration would have kept it quiet ー and sent Tony Blinken to Beijing for a lecture.

Indeed, months ago commercial airline pilots reported balloons between the Hawaiian Islands and the US West Coast. And not a word from the US government.

The Chinese may be as grabby as the fat man at the buffet, but the Americans have a pathologic need to talk and engage with the PRC ー and any amount of groveling is fine. The Chinese communists know it.

Read the rest at JapanForward.

Grant Newsham is a Senior Fellow at Yorktown Institute.

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