Photo Credit: FT montage; dreamstime.
Adnan Zai is a global private equity professional.
And as a man who grew up on three continents, he cares deeply about foreign policy. We sat down to talk to him recently about Chinese/US relations, and the balloon that was shot down in the Atlantic Ocean on February 4. The balloon originally entered the US air space north of the Aleutian Islands on January 28 and moved mostly over land, crossing into Alaska and then to the Canadian Northwest Territories on Monday. Then on Tuesday it doubled back into US territory in Idaho, when President Joe Biden first became aware of it. By Wednesday it was flying over Montana and Malmstrom Air Force Base, which contains fields of nuclear missile silos. Although Biden and his team wanted it shot down immediately, experts suggested waiting until it was over water to mitigate the possible damage to civilians. On Saturday at 2:39 pm, an F-22 fighter jet fired a missile at the balloon and punctured it, 6 nautical miles off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where it dropped into 47 feet of water in a 7 mile radius.
Kraven: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. said the full Senate will get a briefing next week on the balloon, including details about its surveillance capabilities, and that the administration is considering measures aimed at China for their “brazen activities.” By shooting down the balloon he said the US “sent a clear message to China that this is not acceptable.” Knowing that China/US relations are always tenuous, what is your take on the Chinese claim that it was a civilian craft?
Adnan Zai: China has been after our secrets for decades, and the relationship between the countries is getting more difficult by the minute. This balloon stunt will set back the relationship even further. President Biden has done everything he could to diffuse the situation, but this situation will aggravate tempers on both sides. Given the moves that President Xi Jinping has made in the past few years against the US, this was not a civilian craft.
Kraven: Interestingly, when the Pentagon publicly exposed the balloon on Thursday, “China maneuvered the balloon to leave the US,” Shumer said. This flies in the face of China’s claim that it was a civilian airship used mainly for meteorological research and had limited “self-steering capabilities” and had simply blown off course. Do you think this is accurate?
Adnan Zai: With the track record out of China and their interest in our military holdings, I find it hard to believe that the balloon was just out flying for pleasure and got pushed off course. The Chinese regime continues to push the envelope to gain power throughout the globe. Coming out of the G-20 Summit in Bali last fall, it seemed like both countries were trying to move forward with more stability, with President Xi Jinping and President Biden both seeing that as a good idea. But in such a delicate relationship as the one between China and the US, events like this balloon flight will really set things back.
Kraven: Although any news like this will immediately become supercharged and political, several balloons were actually traversing American airspace during the Donald Trump presidency, according to Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, the head of NORAD and the officer responsible for domestic air threats. They were not detected until after the fact when the intelligence community pieced it together. “As the NORAD commander, it’s my responsibility to detect threats to North America,” VanHerck said. “I will tell you that we did not detect those threats, and that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out. The intel community, after the fact, made us aware of those balloons that were previously approaching North America or transited North America,” he added. Can we rise above politics to do what is in the best interest for the safety of our citizens?
Adnan Zai: While many political games transpire across party lines, we need to work together to ensure that the safety of the American people is not compromised. When the balloon was found last week, the finger pointing on both sides began immediately. Instead of working against each other, US politicians need to work together against China.
Kraven: Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee was quoted as saying, “The message they (the Chinese) were trying to send is what they believe internally, and that is that the United States is a once great superpower that’s hollowed out, that’s in decline. And the message they’re trying to send the world is, ‘Look, these guys can’t even do anything about a balloon flying over US airspace. How can you possibly count on them if something were to happen in the Indo-Pacific region?’” If the same thing happened three times during Trump’s presidency, what does that say about US defense?
Adnan Zai: We definitely need to bolster security, especially from Communist governments that are totalitarian in nature. We can assume they are using the technology they create to spy on us. In addition to satellites that bring in a lot of information on both sides, the fact that a balloon could sneak into our airspace under the guise of a wind-blown civilian craft is rather outlandish. Frankly, this is disconcerting at best, and extremely dangerous at worst.
Kraven: Retired Admiral Mike Mullen, a former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, said “This was not an accident. This was deliberate. It was intelligence, you know?” He added that they may have wanted to disrupt the Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s planned visit. He said “this really damages the relationship between us and China” and “puts a big dent in moving forward in a constructive way, which we really need to do.” Additionally, the reaction from China was swift. Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng lodged a formal complaint with the US Embassy over the “US attack on a Chinese civilian unmanned airship by military force.” Do you think this will have long term ramifications?
Adnan Zai: Absolutely, how could this maneuver by the Chinese government not affect the very tenuous relationship they already have? Blinken’s trip was meant to smooth things over between the two countries, and is something both Presidents seem to have wanted in the fall. This puts a damper on the peace-seeking mission and raises the suspicion level for US intelligence and defense workers.
Kraven: Officials from the defense department explained that the US was able to collect intelligence as the balloon flew, and ascertained that the technology on the balloon didn’t add much to China’s intelligence beyond what they get for satellites. Should this give us any peace of mind?
Adnan Zai: At the end of the day, honestly, no, as anything that flies into our air space should be ascertained immediately. The fact that we didn’t know immediately should be a big red flag. If any entity can get that close to us, it does not bode well for the safety of our country.
Kraven: Another balloon was found flying over Latin America, at a height of 55,000 feet. The Air Force claimed it did not pose a flight risk. Do you think this will be a continued habit for the Chinese?
Adnan Zai: I do think the Chinese will continue to do whatever they can get away with. To that end, we need to step up the military intelligence on our side to minimize these balloon trips in the future.
Kraven: Thank you for your time, Adnan Zai. We appreciate your viewpoints.