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  • Sarah Bores

Spy Balloons and the Future of US-Sino Relations

On February 4, 2023, a US F-22 fighter jet shot down a 200 foot Chinese surveillance balloon weighing more than 2,000 pounds over the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina. On February 11, a second airborne object was shot down over Canada and a third on February 12 over Lake Huron, Michigan. In monitoring the initial balloon, US surveillance determined the device was for intelligence as it possessed visible equipment including antennas. The balloon was first detected over Alaska by the Pentagon on January 28. The public was not informed until February 2 when the balloon was visible over Montana. The device’s presence over Montana sparked panic as it flew over one of the US’s three nuclear missile silo fields, with the balloon possessing the ability to capture communication signals that satellites cannot.

Amidst criticism regarding response time, John Kirby, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, argued that as the balloon flew over the US, the military was given an opportunity to collect intelligence on the device itself. He also explained that the recovery process will provide additional valuable information.

China responded with claims that it was simply a weather balloon blown off course, even going on to express “regret” over the situation. A research fellow for Georgetown University’s Initiative for US-China Dialogue on Global Issues commented that this was an “unusual admission” from the Chinese government and a surprising departure from the normal defensive accusations pointed towards the US. In response to claims of the balloon being a meteorological device, the State Department noted the equipment on the balloon was “inconsistent with the equipment on board weather balloons,” with solar panels and the capacity of collecting communications and intelligence. Army Lt. General Douglas Sims further defended the US’s response to the situation, noting that the balloon did not fly over sensitive sites in Alaska. In evaluating how to respond, officials calculated that the danger to civilians on the ground in shooting the balloon down was greater than the risk posed by the spying capacity of the balloon.

An image captured of the Chinese balloon in February, 2023. Source: ABC News

The presence of the Chinese balloons, and the US’s response, has raised the notion of the potential ramifications of the event on US-Sino relations and has called into question global security from espionage. Internationally, Chinese spy balloons have been flown across five continents and over more than 40 countries, suggesting the expansion of China’s global surveillance campaigns. Following the US’s detection of the balloon over Alaska, Japan and Taiwan have both come forward with information suggesting that both have also had balloon sightings. The Biden Administration and the Pentagon have also linked the manufacturer of these balloons to the Chinese military.

The most recent device detected over the US is believed to be the fifth Chinese spy balloon that has flown over the continental US since 2017. Three of these five previous balloons had crossed US territory during the Trump Administration and the other was earlier in Biden’s presidency. Each flew for short periods of time compared to the most recent sighting, however, Trump still refuted that any occurred during his presidency. Clarifications were made in which the three detections were discovered only after he had left office. This came as a result of a “domain awareness gap” as the Defense Department failed to detect these four earlier balloons. A former commander of US Pacific Command noted that this is worrying and concerning for the US’s understanding of these balloon devices.

This incident has the capacity to significantly alter the already fragile US-China relationship. Despite US intentions of maintaining open communication with China, the Biden Administration has also begun to inform other countries of China’s balloon program and violations of sovereignty to garner support and opposition to China’s espionage endeavors. The presence of the balloon over the continental US, in conjunction with China’s aggressive expansions in the South China Sea and efforts to control Taiwan, have prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to indefinitely postpone his diplomatic visit to Beijing, a trip that would have been the highest-level US diplomatic visit since 2018. The diplomatic trip intended to build on a thawing of relations could not occur following such a clear violation of US sovereignty and international law. Gabriel Wildau, a managing director at an advisory firm, notes that the “US-China détente is now in critical condition, if not entirely dead.” China’s recent espionage activities also pose a threat to impact NATO, as Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg described the presented security challenges for the 30-member alliance.

The incident also serves to raise questions about security and surveillance in a technologically advancing world and shifts within global power dynamics. Biden has attempted to calm fears of increased tensions, noting that he does not believe shooting down the surveillance balloon will harm relations. Biden explained that he has made it clear that if China “threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did.” Following this remark, a Foreign Ministry official said China is “opposed to defining the entire China-U.S. relationship in terms of competition.” The event ultimately exposes the deepening emergence of the US-Sino superpower rivalry. Such a deliberate challenge to national security from Beijing has intensified fears of immediate Chinese threats to the US homeland. Expanded spy campaigns on the part of the Chinese have been seen as attempts to expand their influence, power, and intelligence operations. Such an intrusion of American sovereignty has ignited anger and frustration in Washington, threatening to expand the growing rivalry into an intense conflict over the course of the 21st century.

In attempts to counter China, Biden has deepened ties with Asian allies such as Japan and the Philippines, expanding access to bases in the Philippines, and agreeing on the offensive capacity of US Marines in Japan. If Biden escalates US reactions after shooting down the balloon, a strong counter-response from Beijing could follow worsening tensions. With the incident pushing US public opinion further in opposition to China, Biden will stray further from diplomacy and closer to confrontation. Tensions can only be made worse by a possible visit to Taiwan from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. After former speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s trip last year, China was furious, initiating naval exercises nearby and warned that another visit would violate the “One China” principle of relations between Washington and Beijing.

In the wake of Chinese spy balloon sightings and the rising of tensions, the future state of US-Chinese relations, the global balance of power, and security regarding privacy amidst advances in technology and surveillance are called into question.


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