Defense Expert Bridge Colby Analyzes China’s Intentions

CLAY: Joined now by Elbridge Colby, who is an expert on China and United States relations, and he also is the co-founder and principal of the Marathon Initiative. He is a former U.S. assistant deputy secretary of defense for strategy and force deployment. His latest book, “The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict.” All right, Bridge, appreciate you taking the time to join us. I know you’ve been on the show before. What in the world do you think is the most likely explanation for what has been going on the last 72 hours as we have now shot down at least three different — still unidentified — flying objects?

COLBY: Great to be with you, Clay. Always a pleasure to be on the show. I mean, I have to say the most likely explanation is that it’s part of the Chinese surveillance program. But I don’t have ironclad confidence that that’s what it is. I mean, it could be other countries. I mean, it’s not beyond the pale that it’s the Russians, maybe even the North Koreans is not out of the realm of possible. It could be private companies. I mean, some of the things they’re talking about… I saw Kirby on the news earlier this morning. You know, he was saying they haven’t even been able to dredge these things up. I mean, a lot of them are really forbidding places and a number of them are quite a bit smaller than the massive Chinese surveillance. So I think the most likely is that it’s part of the same Chinese program, but I don’t think that’s open and shut.

CLAY: When should we know? I’m kind of stunned that we shot this one down off the coast of Alaska 72 hours ago and we still don’t really have an explanation from the administration. Do you think they have a really good idea what this is? Do you think they don’t? Are they being level with us?

COLBY: I don’t know. My impression is that they don’t fully understand it. I mean, I was struck by this sort of, you know, General VanHerck, the NORTHCOM commander. I mean, he said there’s been real gaps in our understanding of what’s going on in our air space over the last few years. So some of this, I think, is, you know, somehow we’ve managed to get an improved sense of what’s going on. I mean, maybe that’s fiddling with the radar. I don’t know what that is. Maybe there’s new technologies.

But some of this is obviously, you know, the Chinese we know have embarked on a massive balloon building program. So I think that’s a reasonable suspicion. But, I mean, you know, we still… I don’t think we’ve still recovered a good chunk, at least, or maybe most of the original balloon a week and a half later and I mean, that’s in that’s in relatively, you know, balmy waters off the coast of the Carolinas rather than rather than off the Yukon or Alaska. So my guess is we’re not entirely sure yet.

CLAY: Chuck Schumer came out and said it was “humiliating” for the Chinese to have their spy balloon shot down over the coast of — off the coast of — South Carolina in the Atlantic Ocean. Do you think it’s viewed that way by the Chinese? How would you assess the relative humiliation factors between China sending a balloon across the whole United States and us shooting it down after it left the Continental United States?

COLBY: Well, I think it’s much worse for us to have a balloon cross our entire country and Canada, too, in our territorial airspace.

CLAY: Yes.

COLBY: And then, you know, after almost a week, then we shoot it down, you know, once…. I mean, and it’s not… One of the things that I assumed was the administration, the government had known about it for the first few days. But it’s not entirely clear to me that we knew about it for the first few days. And this is a you know, this is a very large balloon. I mean, it’s like three football fields, I think, the balloon and, you know, the sort of thing it was holding below it — you know, the surveillance stuff basically — was like the size of a couple of busses. So I think that’s you know, that’s definitely not a win for our side. But, of course, this is this is far from over, this whole dynamic.

CLAY: Does this impact Taiwan in a significant way in your mind? Are we learning anything based on where Chinese-American relations are right now as it pertains to this spy balloon and potentially these additional unidentified flying objects in the event that they are from China in terms of what it might mean for the United States and China squaring off over Taiwan?

COLBY: I think it does tell us something very, very important and interesting and disturbing, which is just the global reach of the People’s Liberation Army. I mean, I think there’s a sense, you know, in a lot of the discussion and the news reporting is really focused on Taiwan. But I think that’s a mistake because the Chinese military has been dramatically increasing its capability over the last few years — and in ways where it can not just surveil, but potentially threaten to attack the American homeland. So this is not simply about Taiwan in some narrow, localized sense.

This is about the Chinese flying a massive balloon — and potentially doing so without or even knowing for several days — over American territorial airspace. And what are they what was it doing? Well, I mean, it was flying over our ICBM base in Montana. It was also apparently flying over or nearby Whiteman Air Force Base, the home of the B-2 bomber, the most — you know, the kind of one of the crown jewels of our military. So, I mean, and this is not alone. I mean, a year plus ago, we had the Chinese testing hypersonic missiles that according to the newspapers, some of our scientists didn’t even know that some of their capabilities or maneuvers were theoretically possible.

So what I think this says is that China is really not just kind of a narrow threat in terms of Asia or the western Pacific or the first island chain or Taiwan. It’s also very much about the ability to threaten the homeland. And I think that also tells us in a more fundamental way, the stakes, the stakes are about something well beyond Asia. I mean, this is a country that can do something in a sense that the Soviets never really tried. I mean, it was a long time ago now. But, I mean, it’s got an economy that’s of equivalent size. It’s flying balloons, It’s flying satellites over us. It has long-range aviation. It now has more nuclear missile launchers than we have, long-range missile launchers. Let’s not get this, let’s not, you know, get mixed up about what this is. This is this is a country with global reach and global ambitions.

CLAY: Let’s talk — last question for you; I was talking about this in the last segment — is there a possibility that this actually reflects weakening of Chairman Xi’s absolute power in China and that this could be a Chinese military-driven plan that he’s not necessarily signing off on, given the timing with Secretary Blinken and a potential state visit or do you think that this is Chairman Xi himself who ordered this Chinese spy balloon? How would you assess the internal palace intrigue, so to speak, of China and what that might tell us about this situation?

COLBY: It’s really hard to know. I mean, I find it hard to believe that there are military elements in the PLA that are willfully bucking Xi Jinping. I mean, he’s really consolidated power over the last few years, and it’s a party army. You know, it’s really a Communist Party army. So, but it is it is puzzling. Why would Xi Jinping do this now? Because the Chinese are on a bit of a charm offensive. I think they’re on their back feet over the economy, Zero-Covid, you know, decreasing, you know, sort of popularity around the world for China. So, it is it is puzzling. I mean, I could see… You know, I think there’s one explanation which could be they’re probing us.

They’re challenging us. I mean, you know, almost like a kind of a negotiating style where you kind of put a dig into the opponent and kind of like humiliate him a little bit to see how he reacts and push him back. That’s a tried-and-true Chinese and communist negotiating tactic. It’s also possible that they didn’t fully appreciate what the response was going to be or fully coordinate how everything was going to go. But I think that’s… You know, it’s hard to know. But I think that, you know, we have to step back and say, “Look, we can’t know what’s going on in Xi Jinping’s head.

“We can’t know what’s going on inside the Standing Committee of the Central Committee of the Politburo, of the People’s Republic of China.” We have to deal with what the reality is. They’re flying balloons over airspace. They’re continuing an unprecedented military buildup. The leopard has not fundamentally changed its spots. Doesn’t mean we have to be willfully aggressive or provocative, but it means we shouldn’t get distracted and we shouldn’t go for this kind of “compete while cooperating.” We should make sure that we are operating from a position of strength. That is what Xi Jinping, that is what the People’s Republic of China government respects — and from that position of strength, we can take a more moderate position. But first, we have to be tough and hawkish in order to get to that place.

CLAY: Bridge Colby, if you like this conversation, Buck Sexton and Bridge Colby had a long-form discussion. You can find that in the Clay & Buck podcast feed. Appreciate the time, my man.

COLBY: Great to talk to you.