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Defense & Security
President Xi Jinping shaking hands with Vladimir Putin

The Chinese are not “tolerant”: they are preparing a global counteroffensive

by Yuri Tavrovsky

Moscow-Beijing: combat coordination is growing. Powerful cold currents from the West determine the political atmosphere of the planet. Efforts are being made to counter them with warm currents from the East. Only the synergy of actions between Russia and China prevents the the consolidated camp of hegemony from entering the "final and decisive battle" against each of these recalcitrant powers individually. We are well aware of the situation on the western front of the global Cold War. However, on the eastern front, where there is no Ukrainian-scale conflict yet, tensions are approaching critical levels. Defense-related Chinese trade publications have published some very disturbing material in recent weeks. ... To destroy the latest American nuclear aircraft carrier Gerald Ford and the battle group accompanying it from a cruiser and 5 missile frigates, 24 hypersonic missiles without nuclear warheads were enough. In a computer simulation, rocket launches were carried out from 6 different areas, including even the Gobi Desert in Northwest China. Considered unsinkable, the carrier group was completely destroyed by a series of launches of distracting and damaging missiles. The Chinese took into account the capabilities of both the standard set of anti-aircraft weapons and the latest American SM-3 anti-missiles. According to the scenario described in the Chinese-language Journal of Test and Measurement, the American armada entered the waters of the South China Sea and continued to move in a menacing course, despite warnings. Similar scenarios play out regularly near Chinese shores. Another Chinese publication spoke about the mortal danger of such actions. The South China Morning Post, published in Hong Kong in English, reported that the war between China and the United States could begin in the South China Sea. On January 5, 2021, three US Navy anti-submarine aircraft searched for Chinese submarines near the Dongsha Qundao (Pratas) archipelago. Reconnaissance aircraft, as always, dropped electronic buoys and tracked the routes of Chinese submarines that were participating in major exercises. However, one plane flew too close to China, and Chinese fighters flew in from there. The Chinese regarded the situation as a huge threat to national security. There was a possibility of an armed conflict, and the Americans, taking into account the unfolding actions of the PRC Air Force and Navy, began to prepare for the worst and even destroyed expensive buoys with top-secret equipment. The description of the conflict in the Chinese specialized magazine Shipboard Electronic Countermeasures does not give details of the confrontation. However, everything was very, very serious. No wonder the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States, General Mark Milley, made a phone call to the Chinese Minister of Defense a couple of days later, assuring him that the Pentagon had no intention of provoking a real war. He even promised to inform his counterparts in Beijing in advance about the intentions of policymakers in the event of a critical situation. These two sensational publications did not appear by accident. One can only guess how many dangerous situations arise on the line of contact between the military of China and America in the Asia-Pacific basin. But, as the Chinese proverb says, “Heaven proposes, Xi Jinping disposes.” The Supreme Commander, acting at the strategic level of planning and decision-making, is responding to Washington's growing aggressiveness by demonstrating readiness for retaliatory actions on the battlefield and intensifying combat coordination with Russia. Planned for April, Xi Jinping's visit to Moscow was postponed to the end of March, and negotiations with Vladimir Putin lasted a total of 8 hours. Even not so much the published documents as the subsequent events showed qualitative changes in the partnership between Moscow and Beijing. The time has come for all-round combat coordination. It began with hours of face-to-face talks between the two supreme commanders. Soon, Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu came to Moscow. After the visit of an experienced and energetic military commander, Chen Wenqing, curator of internal and external intelligence services, arrived in Moscow. Reports of his meetings with the secretary of our Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, showed the resolute attitude of the chief intelligence officer of the Celestial Empire towards the West. For its part, the Kremlin decided to reinforce the dynamics of combat coordination with a "volley of the main guns." A delegation of high-ranking officials and business leaders headed by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin headed to Beijing, unprecedented in size and level. The visit was prepared in a hurry and took place under the vigilant eye of the Western intelligence services. Therefore, the number and quality of signed agreements disappointed the optimists. But the bilateral meetings of officials, bankers and experts of the two countries that took place on the sidelines advanced the ongoing negotiations on strategic areas of cooperation and prepared serious deals. During the visit, influential publications noted the mutual interest of both countries in the accelerated growth of trade. Thus, the Global Times, which is close to the CCP Central Committee, noted the synergy of the two trends. Russia needs to increase the export of raw materials, especially energy. Against the backdrop of a rapid economic recovery, China needs to expand imports of the same oil and gas, agricultural products and other types of raw materials. The development of China's relations with the West repeats the history of the deterioration of Russia's relations with the West. The sanctions already imposed on China will be tightened. Access to sources of raw materials and markets will become a priority for Beijing for the foreseeable future. We should not turn a blind eye to the reaction of some Chinese experts and blogosphere activists to the arrival in Beijing of Mikhail Mishustin at the head of a thousandth army of the Russian elite. The emphasis is not even so much on the vital need for Moscow to receive income from trade with China as on the desirability of not offending the West, leaving the door open for relations with America. However, after 40 years of Chinese-American marriage of convenience, it would be naive to expect a quick change of shoes. There does not seem to be any improvement in relations between America and China, despite Biden's hints and the visit of Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao to the United States. Overcoming the pathological hatred of politicians for China, business people in Washington continue to do business even in the most adverse conditions. In 2022, bilateral trade reached an all-time high of $691 billion. At the same time, the Americans were able to sell their goods to the Chinese for less than 154 billion. The reduction or abolition of duties, which President Trump began to introduce back in 2018 and President Biden is increasing, could help improve the quality and further increase trade. They cost each American family $1,000 a year. However, the prospects for curtailing the trade war are very illusory. The White House and both houses of the US Congress are on the warpath. Any attempt to improve US-China relations ends in scandal—Pelosi's scandalous trip, the big white ball... The same fate awaits current hopes. The visit of Pelosi's heir, Speaker of the House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy to Taiwan is being prepared. At the G7 summit in Tokyo, there was a military coordination between NATO and Japan. China, along with Russia, is designated in the final documents as the main enemy. The bloc's regional headquarters is to be opened in Tokyo. It is impossible to get rid of historical parallels. Similarly, in 1936, Japan concluded the Anti-Comintern Pact with Nazi Germany, directed against the Soviet Union. A few months later, the emboldened Japanese began an all-out war against the Celestial Empire, capturing Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan and Nanjing in 1937. Only the diplomatic, military and financial assistance of the Soviet Union prevented the capitulation of the Republic of China along the lines of France. Stubbornly resisting China, in turn, prevented Tokyo from attacking the USSR at the already appointed time - August 29, 1941. Then there were two fronts - Soviet and Chinese. Now the situation is repeating itself. The Chinese were not patient. They were defending then. Now, relying on a reliable Russian rear, they launched a counteroffensive. Thanks to Beijing's 12-point peace plan for Ukraine and Xi Jinping's phone call with Zelensky, China is destroying the Yellow Threat stereotype at minimal cost in the European theater and strengthening its image as a peacemaker. There is competition with America. The first study trip to Kyiv, Paris, Berlin, Brussels and Moscow of Special Representative Xi Jinping, Ambassador Li Hui, has just ended. It was preceded by trips of "heavyweights" - Chinese Vice President Han Zheng, foreign policy curator on the party line Wang Yi, Foreign Minister Qin Gang. Another area of China's global counteroffensive is to prevent the West from filling the strategic vacuum in Central Asia. That was the task of the summit of the five countries of this region and China in Xi'an, the ancient capital of several Chinese dynasties. This also meets the strategic interests of Moscow. The combat coordination of the two mighty powers of the Eurasian continent is gaining momentum and taking on new forms. How can one not recall that in March, Xi Jinping, when saying goodbye to Vladimir Putin on the steps of the Grand Kremlin Palace, said: “Now there are changes that have not happened in 100 years, and we are driving these changes.” Putin's answer was short but meaningful: "I agree."

Defense & Security
Sukhbaatar, the parliament building of the government of Mongolia in Ulan Bator

Renewed Geopolitical Rivalries: Challenges and Options for Mongolia

by Mendee Jargalsaikhan

IntroductionDuring a break in the COVID-19 pandemic, the foreign ministers of China, Russia, Japan and the United States boosted Mongolia into international headlines. Returning from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Moscow, for instance, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stopped in Ulaanbaatar (15–16 September) with a message: Do not take sides with China’s competitors if Mongolia wants to rely on the Chinese economic powerhouse. Within the week, Mongolian Foreign Minister Enkhtaivan Nyamtseren was invited by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to meet on short notice. Even though the ministers jointly announced the finalization of a treaty on the permanent comprehensive strategic partnership, the Kremlin showed its will to lead trilateral economic projects (such as a gas pipeline) with China and impose the Eurasian Economic Union agenda on Mongolia. Then on 29 September, the United States Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced the inclusion of Mongolia in his trip to visit allies in East Asia—Japan and the Republic of Korea.2 Although the trip was ultimately cancelled due to an outbreak of COVID-19 cases among White House officials, Pompeo talked by telephone with President Battulga Khaltmaa and highlighted their shared commitment to democracy and regional security. A few days later, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, considered a key insider of then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s geopolitics, flew to Ulaanbaatar. In addition to updating the strategic partnership plan until 2022, the Japanese Foreign Minister’s interests centred on Mongolia’s inclusion in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy. Mongolia has declared strategic partnerships with each of these great powers and is thus entering a complicated geopolitical setting. It is not entirely new. A similar scene occurred in the summer of 1991. Chinese President Yang Shangkun, Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu and the United States Secretary of State James Baker each visited Mongolia within a month’s time. China wanted agreement to non-interference in its internal affairs, whereas Japan and the United States imposed non-reversal conditionality on Mongolia’s democratic transition to receive much-needed economic assistance. The primary difference then was the absence of Russia. This policy paper discusses the renewed geopolitical rivalries of the great powers, explains Mongolia’s challenges to manoeuvring in this tough geopolitical terrain and then proposes pursuit of a pragmatic, neutral foreign policy option similar to Finland’s strategic concessions to its neighbouring great power, the Soviet Union.Renewed geopolitical rivalriesThe great power competition also is nothing new. Even after the Cold War, China, Japan, Russia and the United States were watching each other suspiciously while avoiding unnecessary tension. In the 1990s, policymakers and academics in Japan, Russia, and the United States debated over the China threat and the consequences of China’s economic rise. Russian leaders, such as Foreign Minister and later Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and President Vladimir Putin, sought ways to balance with the United States and to integrate into the European economic and security framework. It was not a surprise when Putin hinted at Russia’s inclusion in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) because the country was already supporting American military operations in Afghanistan. Similarly, in 2000, the United States Congress mandated its Defense Department to report annually on China’s security strategy and military development. China and Japan had similar outlooks. China was wary of the United States, whereas Japan remained vigilant of both China and Russia. In the mid-2000s, all these countries reassessed their long-term geopolitical and economic objectives as the geopolitical setting began to shift. With similar geopolitical concerns about American strategies, China and Russia advanced their partnership by conducting an annual joint military exercise (Peace Mission, beginning in 2005) and even demanded the withdrawal of American forces from Central Asia. When the United States proposed another round of NATO’s expansion into Ukraine and Georgia and new missile defence systems in the Czech Republic and Poland, Russia quickly reacted. This resulted in a brief military conflict with Georgia in 2008. Following the breakdown with Europe, Russia began pursuing policies to reassert its influence in former Soviet republics through the Eurasian Economic Union as well as the Collective Security Treaty Organization. China and Russia jointly strengthened the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and created a new bloc with Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa (BRICS) for collaborating on major geopolitical issues. From 2012, the great power rivalries intensified. Chinese President Xi Jinping renounced the “hide and bide” principle of Deng Xiaoping by pledging that China would take an active role in global politics. A year later, China unveiled a new grand strategy, known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), to invest in infrastructure that increases global connectivity. Chinese leaders explained that the BRI is a “win–win” developmental initiative. The ambitions and ambiguity of the BRI, however, immediately raised geopolitical concern from all the great powers, as if China was about to reshape the global and regional order for its geopolitical advantage. For example, building on its earlier strategy (Pivot to East Asia), the United States launched a series of measures to contain China. It endorsed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s quadrilateral security dialogue (for the alliance of Japan, India, Australia and the United States) and strengthened ties with India, Myanmar, Singapore and Vietnam, all of whom are cautious of China’s economic and military powers. Meanwhile, in 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and intervened in Eastern Ukraine, based on its geopolitical concerns for Ukraine’s potential membership in NATO. Then, in 2015, Russia deployed its military to Syria to check the United States’ interventions while declaring its strategic partnership with China. In response, the United States cited China and Russia as the biggest threats in its National Defense Strategy (2018), which is the country’s long-term strategic defense document.6 The American Defense Department released its Indo–Pacific Strategy Report, and the State Department defined its Free and Open Indo–Pacific vision. Both documents prioritized containing China’s growing economic and military power in the Indo–Pacific region. In addition to sanctions against China and Russia, the United States pressured its allies to ban Chinese telecommunication companies from participating in the development of the 5G network. In contrast, Russia welcomed the Chinese telecommunication giant—Huawei—to develop its 5G network and pledged to develop Chinese missile defence capabilities. This new round of great power rivalries is changing the geopolitical setting for a small State like Mongolia.Challenges for MongoliaThe primary challenge for Mongolia is to maintain its sovereignty. For centuries, geography has dictated the country’s fate as a classic buffer State between two expansionist and rival great powers—China and Russia. While serving the Kremlin’s geopolitical interests from 1921 to 1986, Mongolia gained United Nations membership and its independence from China. During this period, Mongolia remained under close control of the Kremlin and became a militarized buffer State whenever Russian geopolitical interests were threatened. The Kremlin deployed its military three times: in 1921, 1936 and 1960. Following the Sino– Soviet rapprochement and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mongolia normalized its relations with China and developed new ties with the United States and its allies. In the 1990s, Mongolia did not experience any geopolitical pressure from the great powers and firmly declared a series of neutrality policies. At the time, Mongolia’s two neighbours were preoccupied with maintaining their domestic matters and also coping with security concerns elsewhere. The United States and Japan focused on Mongolia’s political and economic transition while explicitly avoiding developing security ties. In that period, Mongolia adopted a series of neutrality policies: the constitutional prohibition on foreign military transition and basing, a non-aligned foreign policy stance, declaration of a nuclear weapon-free zone and bilateral treaties with all the great powers, with a “against no third party” principle. In this favourable geopolitical context, Mongolia increased Its engagement with international and regional organizations and sought ways to attract the interests of so-called “third neighbours”. The most important endeavour was its military deployment in support of American operations in Iraq, when China and Russia were strongly opposing the United States war in Iraq. Then, Mongolia deployed its military to Kosovo and Afghanistan. This military contribution resulted in close political and defence ties with the United States and NATO members as of 2003. The other endeavour was the conclusion of an investment agreement with Anglo–Australian mining giant Rio Tinto and Canadian Ivanhoe Mines to develop the Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold deposit. These endeavours triggered reactions from China and Russia. China’s security experts cautioned Mongolia’s inclusion in the American “strategic encirclement” of China, whereas Russia was wary of losing its geopolitical privileges in Mongolia to NATO members. China and Russia jointly pressured Mongolia to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. As a result, Mongolia became an observer in 2005. Since then, Russia has taken assertive action to secure its geopolitical and geo-economic interests in critical areas such as railway construction, the energy sector and uranium mining. To be clear, neither China nor Russia attempted in this period to influence Mongolia’s domestic politics, especially its elections. Now all these great powers want to include Mongolia in their competing geopolitical visions. China declared a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2014 and included Mongolia as one of six economic corridors of the BRI. Beijing leaders hope that Mongolia will join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to fulfil its regionalization strategy of Central Asia. They also want Mongolia to commit to non-intervention in its internal affairs, especially in matters related to Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Inner Mongolia, in return for economic assistance and market access. In 2019, Russia quickly upgraded its strategic partnership with conclusion of a permanent treaty, which imposed Mongolia’s adherence to the Russian geopolitical agenda. Specifically, the treaty prioritizes bilateral consultations, renews defence technical cooperation and requires Mongolia’s adherence to the 1,520 mm (Russian standard railway gauge) for the railway extension. As hinted by some Russian officials, the Kremlin even dreams of Mongolia’s inclusion in the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, considering how Mongolia is traditionally wary of Chinese expansion. The United States and Japan have included Mongolia in their Free and Open Indo–Pacific strategy because Mongolia shares similar values (democracy, human rights) and security concerns regarding China and Russia. Interestingly, the American Pentagon’s Indo–Pacific Strategy (June 2019) identified Mongolia as a “reliable, capable and natural partner of the United States,” while designating Mongolia’s two neighbours as the biggest security threats: China as a revisionist power and Russia a revitalized Malign Actor. The American State Department’s Free and Open Indo–Pacific visionary document highlights Mongolia as one of the beneficiaries and supporters of its strategy. Japan also included Mongolia in its Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (PQI), a developmental assistance alternative to China’s BRI, and designated a new international airport and railway flyover (Sun Bridge) in Ulaanbaatar as PQI projects. Like many small States, Mongolia’s challenge is determining how to manoeuvre in this round of great power competitions without compromising its sovereignty and undermining its institutions of democratic governance.Options for MongoliaIdeally, the best option for Mongolia is to maintain friendly ties with all the great powers and to benefit economically as it sits at the merging point of different geopolitical strategies. In fact, this has been the case to a certain degree. Mongolia’s nuclear weapon-free zone status has been endorsed by all permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The country’s peacekeeping efforts, whether military deployments or hosting training events, have been supported by all the involved great powers. Both China and Japan have aided in road development, such as with the Chinese-built Moon Bridge (BRI funding) and the Japanese Sun Bridge (PQI project) in the capital city. At the moment, China and the United States are assisting to improve the capital city’s water supply and infrastructure. Hopefully, China and Russia will construct a natural gas pipeline through Mongolia, which would increase trilateral economic cooperation. Current trends, however, force a consideration of the likelihood of consequences in the worst- and best-case scenarios. The most likely worst-case scenario has China alone or together with Russia entering into conflict with the United States. This circumstance would force Mongolia to limit its relations with the United States and even to stand with its neighbours against the United States and its allies. The other worst-case scenario, which is less likely at the moment, is the emergence of Sino–Russian geopolitical tension. This would create the direst situation, in which Mongolia could easily fall into the control of either neighbour or become a battleground. The best-case scenarios are also possible and would create a favourable overarching setting for Mongolia to manoeuvre and maintain its sovereignty. The best-case scenarios have all the great powers seeking strategic stability because they are intertwined with domestic challenges or geopolitically distracted elsewhere. In all these scenarios, the primary objective for Mongolian leaders would remain the same—to maintain sovereignty and independence. However, Mongolia’s options to maintain its sovereignty are limited. First, it is a regionless country. Therefore, it cannot rely on any regional security alliance, such as NATO or the Collective Security Treaty Organization. The only close alliance is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but Mongolia is wary of jeopardizing its sovereignty if it joins. Second, it is impossible for leaders in Ulaanbaatar to gain security guarantees from one or several of the great powers, with the possible exception of Russia. Leaders in Washington and Tokyo are not likely to make any such deal as with the Philippines or Taiwan. Mongolia is too cautious of losing its sovereignty to Russia and provoking China by renewing the mutual defence clause with Russia. Lastly, Mongolia is too economically poor to build its defence capabilities in a way that is similar to Singapore, Switzerland and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Therefore, the most suitable option would be to make strategic concessions to the great powers following the example of the Finnish experience during the Cold War. This option requires that Mongolia avoid joining in the security alliance of any great power, just as Finland avoided joining NATO and the Warsaw Pact. In this sense, Mongolia should not attempt to upgrade its current level of confidence-building security defence relations with members of NATO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and, potentially, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (if it turns into a regional security organization). In regard to the Free and Open Indo– Pacific, Mongolia should limit its security cooperation to specific areas: peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and defence diplomacy. This type of neutrality policy would also require Mongolia to abstain from taking any stance on controversial matters related to its neighbours and their geopolitical competitors. Such avoidance would help Mongolia to promote itself as a neutral place for all great powers to negotiate, such as the Finnish model of the Helsinki process. At the same time, Mongolia should strengthen its democratic governance: the parliamentary system, civil society and the rule of law. Democratic governance would distinguish Mongolia’s identity within the authoritarian great powers and ensure self-rule free from those great powers. One of the downsides of this type of neutral, pragmatic strategy, however, is its limit on participation in foreign policy decision-making processes. This requires that only professional diplomats handle foreign policy matters while encouraging informed public discourse. In return for this neutral policy, Mongolia would expect the great powers to respect its sovereignty and restrain any actions to influence its policies.ConclusionWhen the foreign ministers of the great powers gave some attention to Mongolia in the fall of 2020, Mongolia reacted with proactive diplomacy amid the pandemic. On 29 February, Mongolian President Battulga became the first foreign dignitary to visit China during the pandemic and extended a gift of 30,000 sheep as a goodwill gesture. On 21 June, the Mongolian airline, MIAT, conducted a long-awaited flight to North America and delivered more than US$1 million worth of assistance and 60,000 personal protective equipment to the United States. On June 24th, despite Russia having the second highest number of coronavirus cases, the Mongolian military marched in the Victory Day Parade, marking the 75th anniversary of the Soviet victory in the Second World War, in which Mongolia stood as a close ally. As with the proactive diplomacy, the renewed geopolitical tensions among the great powers will require unity, patience and deft diplomacy from Mongolian leaders to steer through the rough sea.

Defense & Security
Chinese Spy balloon

Did China’s balloon violate international law?

by Donald Rothwell

Was the balloon that suddenly appeared over the US last week undertaking surveillance? Or was it engaging in research, as China has claimed? While the answers to these questions may not be immediately known, one thing is clear: the incursion of the Chinese balloon tested the bounds of international law. This incident has also added another layer of complexity to the already strained relations between the US and China. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s planned visit to Beijing has been postponed. And China has reacted to the shooting down of the balloon with diplomatic fury. Both sides have long disagreed over the presence of US warships in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, which China claims as its own waters and the US considers international waters. Will the air be the next realm to be contested by the two superpowers? A long military historyHot air balloons have a somewhat benign public image. But they also have a long military history that extends back to the Napoleonic era in Europe during the late 18th century and early 19th century when they were used for surveillance and bombing missions. The early laws of war even included some specific measures designed to address the military use of balloons during armed conflict. The modern military significance of balloons now appears to be understated, especially in an era of uncrewed aerial vehicles or drones, which have proven effective during the current Ukraine war. However, while balloons may no longer be valued for their war-fighting ability, they retain a unique capacity to undertake surveillance because they fly at higher altitudes than aircraft, can remain stationary over sensitive sites, are harder to detect on radar, and can be camouflaged as civilian weather craft. Who has sovereignty over the air?The international law is clear with respect to the use of these balloons over other countries’ airspace. Every country has complete sovereignty and control over its waters extending 12 nautical miles (about 22 kilometres) from its land territory. Every country likewise has “complete and exclusive sovereignty over the airspace above its territory” under international conventions. This means each country controls all access to its airspace, which includes both commercial and government aircraft. But the upper limit of sovereign airspace is unsettled in international law. In practice, it generally extends to the maximum height at which commercial and military aircraft operate, which is around 45,000 feet (about 13.7km). The supersonic Concorde jet, however, operated at 60,000 feet (over 18km). The Chinese balloon was also reported to be operating at a distance of 60,000 feet. International law does not extend to the distance at which satellites operate, which is traditionally seen as falling within the realm of space law. There are international legal frameworks in place that allow for permission to be sought to enter a country’s airspace, such as the 1944 Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation. The International Civil  Aviation Organization has set an additional layer of rules on airspace access, including for hot air balloons, but it does not regulate military activities. The US also has its own “air defence identification zone”, a legacy of the Cold War. It requires all aircraft entering US airspace to identify themselves. Canada has its own complementary zone. During the height of Cold War tensions, the US would routinely scramble fighter jets in response to unauthorised Soviet incursions into US airspace, especially in the Arctic. Many other countries and regions have similar air defence identification zones, including China, Japan and Taiwan. Taiwan, for instance, routinely scrambles fighter jets in response to unauthorised incursions of its airspace by Chinese aircraft.Testing the waters – and airSo, given these clear international rules, the US was on very firm legal footing in its response to the Chinese balloon. Overflight could only have been undertaken with US permission, which was clearly not sought. China initially attempted to suggest the balloon malfunctioned and drifted into US airspace, claiming force majeure. If the balloon was autonomous, it would have been entirely dependent on wind patterns. However, a report in Scientific American said the balloon appeared to have a high level of manoeuvrability, especially when it appeared to linger over sensitive US defence facilities in Montana. Washington displayed a lot of patience in dealing with the incursion. President Joe Biden authorised military jets to shoot down the balloon, but it took some days before that could be done safely without endangering lives on the ground. The balloon incident has clearly tested the Biden administration and the US response to China’s growing military assertiveness. Similar events occur on a regular basis in the South China Sea, where the US Navy conducts freedom of navigation operations through Chinese claimed waters. The US presence is vigorously challenged by the Chinese Navy. China has also responded aggressively to the presence of US reconnaissance planes over the South China Sea, raising the risks of an accident that could spark a wider conflict. What is remarkable about the balloon incident is China has asserted its physical presence well within America’s sovereign borders. How both sides respond in the aftermath will determine whether China-US tensions worsen further and if we can expect potential future provocations between the two sides in the air, as well as at sea.