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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Inui

Spy Balloons Spell Uncertainty for Already Fraying U.S.-China Relations

U.S. Coast Guard and Navy forces worked to recover debris from a downed balloon that many speculate China was using to spy on U.S. military bases (Tyler Thompson, Wikimedia Commons).

On January 28, a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon was detected in U.S. airspace near the Canadian border. After transiting over Canada and then the continental U.S., a fighter jet shot down the balloon off the coast of South Carolina. While China has vehemently denied allegations of spying, U.S. officials are unsure, which raises the question: why was this balloon in U.S. airspace, and what does this situation mean for the future of U.S.-China relations?

What Was On the Balloons?

On February 17, the U.S. announced that it had concluded recovery efforts for debris from the surveillance balloon. While they managed to retrieve the canopy of the balloon, some wiring, and a few electronics, much of the evidence remains underwater. Still, everything that was retrieved was quickly sent to an FBI lab to be analyzed.

According to a statement from a senior State Department official, the balloon had high-tech equipment that was “clearly for intelligence surveillance,” including antennas “capable of collecting and geo-locating communications” as well as “solar panels large enough to produce the required power to operate multiple active intelligence collection sensors.” Video also shows that the balloon contained small motors, multiple propellers, and a rudder that could be used to actively maneuver the balloon. “It was clearly an intelligence platform,” said CIA director William Burns, “I think we’ll be able to develop a pretty clear picture of exactly what its capabilities were.”

Three More?

Following the situation with the balloon, the U.S. military increased the sensitivity of their radar, leading to an unprecedented three shootdowns of unidentified objects in the weeks following. On February 10, U.S. officials shot down one “high-altitude object” off the coast of Alaska and another out of Canadian airspace the next day. Then, on February 12, the military downed a third object over the Great Lakes Region.

At a briefing, Defense Department officials claimed that the objects did not pose a significant military threat, but their altitude threatened civil aviation and thus raised concern. “Nothing right now suggests they were related to China’s spy balloon program or that they were surveillance vehicles from ... any other country,” Mr. Biden assured reporters, “the intelligence community’s current assessment is that these three objects were mostly balloons tied to… recreation or research institutions studying weather or conducting other scientific research.” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre later confirmed that “there is no indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns.”

On February 17, U.S. and Canadian authorities announced they had called off searches for the three unidentified objects. U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORTHCOM/NORAD) said in a statement that “no debris from [the] airborne objects” had been found following multi-day “systematic searches” involving “airborne imagery and sensors, surface sensors and inspections, and subsurface scans.

What Was the Intention?

After the balloon was shot down, the Chinese foreign ministry quickly denied allegations of spying, claiming it was a weather balloon “affected by the westerly wind and with limited self-control ability.” In a statement on February 3, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said it “regrets that the airship strayed into the United States due to force majeure” and that it would “continue to maintain communication with the U.S. to properly handle the unexpected situation.”

If the balloon turns out to be a spy balloon, it would not be the first flown over the U.S.; similar objects have been spotted over U.S. airspace, including near Florida and Texas. In fact, officials claim China has sent spy balloons to more than 40 countries as part of a new spy balloon program currently under development by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). While it is not entirely known how these balloons’ capabilities differ from that of China’s extensive network of reconnaissance satellites, they can, at the very least, hover longer over a site.

Still, the U.S. is careful to avoid making any hasty assumptions before all the information comes out. “I’m not going to go into any specific intelligence that we may have,” said Pentagon press secretary Pat Ryder, “Again, we know this is a Chinese balloon and that it has the ability to maneuver, but I’ll just leave it at that.”

What Does This Mean for U.S.-China Relations?

Immediately following news of the balloon, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a planned visit to Beijing. The first visit by a U.S. Secretary of State to China in five years, the trip would have been a major step in stabilizing the increasingly frayed ties between the two countries. Instead, it was not until February 17, at the Munich Security Conference, that Blinken met with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi. “I made clear that the presence of this surveillance balloon in U.S. airspace is a clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law,” Blinken told reporters after his meeting.

On the other hand, China criticized the U.S. for a lack of transparency in its recovery efforts for the balloon. “The United States… has completely acted on its own and in a surreptitious manner,” said foreign ministry Wang Wenbin, “China early on through protected consular channels clearly demanded the United States notify [China] on the progress [of recovery of the balloon], but the United States refused to respond.”

Still, U.S. President Joe Biden rejected the idea that relations between the U.S. and China had “taken a big hit” from the situation. While he said he had not spoken to Chinese President Xi Jinping yet, Biden added that he had previously “made it real clear to Xi Jinping that we’re going to compete fully with China, but we’re not looking for conflict.”



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