A Chinese Spy Balloon was spotted over Montana, which is of strategic importance for the US as one of the three nuclear missile silo fields is located at the Malmstrom air force base. The balloon was detected on 28 January 2023, and it was shot on 4 February 2023, six miles off the coast of South Carolina.[i] Subsequently, the US postponed US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to China. The visit would have been the first high-level visit by a senior US official to China since 2018.
Source: The Washington Post
The paper attempts to understand the Chinese alleged intentions for sending the balloon and the subsequent diplomatic crisis over it.
Reactions from China
As the issue of Spy Balloon was reported by the US, China accepted ownership of the balloon and stressed its civilian nature. The first official position of China was released on 3 February 2023. It stated that “The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes. Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure. The Chinese side will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure”.[ii] On 19 February 2023, at the Munich Security Conference, Wang Yi accused the US of “prejudice and ignorance” and described US reactions as “absurd and hysterical”. He also said that the “preposterous” moves by the US of using fighter jets to shoot down the balloon were simply aimed to “divert attention from its domestic problems”.[iii]
Unlike other international issues concerning China, the air balloon incident was widely discussed in Chinese social media. A Chinese citizen wrote about the distinction between “civilian airship” and “spy balloon” and preferred using the term “wandering balloon”. The comments were allowed to circulate freely.[iv] Some commenters referred to the balloon as a weather device that went wandering.[v]
The US Perspectives
While in the US, the Press Secretary of the Pentagon said that the balloon travelled “well above commercial air traffic”. Once it was detected, the US sent F-22 fighter jets to track the balloon.[vi] Later, the US exposed that the balloon “was capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations” and was part of a fleet that had flown over “more than 40 countries across five continents.” The US found out that the spy balloon was operating with sophisticated electronic surveillance technology capable of monitoring US communications.[vii] Reportedly, the original mission of the balloon was to spy on US military bases in Hawaii and Guam, but it drifted off course due to severe wind, passing over Alaska and western Canada before traversing the US. It was part of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and was partly directed by air currents and partly piloted remotely.[viii] It is not the first time that China has sent a balloon for surveillance purposes into the US territory. China had sent three spy balloons over US territory during Donald Trump’s administration. This particular spy balloon has gathered unprecedent attention because it remained over the country for a longer period of time.[ix]
The US and China difference in approach towards the spy balloon incident was evident at the Munich Security Conference. The US Secretary directly spoke about the unacceptable violation of its sovereignty and international law. He underscored that “irresponsible act must never again occur”. While Wang Yi stated China’s position and pointed out that the US has abused the use of force and violated customary international practice and the International Civil Aviation Covenant.[x]
Earlier in the National Security Strategy document, the US has called China as the “most consequential geopolitical challenge”. After the spy balloon incident, the US Commerce Department blacklisted six Chinese entities involved in building the balloon. While the Chinese Ministry of Commerce put two US military suppliers on its “unreliable entity list.[xi]
Notably, the rationale for balloon-based surveillance is not novel, but it is fairly simple. Balloons enable the Chinese to conduct precision surveillance against static or land-based facilities ranging from military bases, missile launches, and radar installations to command-and-control centres. They can also be used to conduct surveillance over slow-moving targets, such as surface vessels across the ocean.[xii] For the first time, France used reconnaissance balloons at the Battle of Fleurus against Austrian and Dutch troops in 1794, during the French revolutionary wars. They were also used in the 1860s, during the American Civil War.[xiii]
The US military experts are of the view that the use of spy balloons is likely to increase in future. They are low-priced than spy satellites, are hard to spot by radar, and are difficult to shoot down. If shot down, they are still lingering for days. They can “steer” by changing altitudes, using computers to calculate how to use winds going in different directions at different layers of the atmosphere. In times of conflict, they could also carry bombs.[xiv]
To summarize, the balloon incident is a reminder that China has not altered its fundamental hostility towards the West and its partners. In a recent speech,[xv] Xi Jinping dispelled the myth that “modernization is equal to Westernization” and advocated China’s system as a model for global development.[xvi] China is also promoting an alternate world order and has released a concept paper on the Global Security Initiative. [xvii]
It may be noted, amid the diplomatic crisis, China released two white papers; the Global Security Initiative and the Chinese Position on the Ukraine Crisis. The US held military drills in the disputed South China Sea on 12 February 2023. The incident took place just a few days before the start of the Two Sessions meeting in China.
The spy-balloon is a part of China’s data collection programme. The incident has further weakened the already fragile US-China relations and once again resulted a diplomatic crisis in US-China relations. In his first press conference, Chinese Foreign Minister Qing Gang said, “the result of the balloon incident is that the US and China policy has entirely deviated from the rational and sound track”. Overall, it has once again invoked debates about China’s surveillance methods and techniques, intelligence programs, and related national security issues, especially at a time when Xi Jinping is starting his third term and has left an impact on popular perception about deepening US-China rivalry.
*Dr. Teshu singh, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi
Disclaimer: The views expressed are personal.
[i] Helene Cooper and Edward Wong, Downing of Chinese Spy Balloon Ends Chapter in a Diplomatic Crisis, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/04/us/politics/chinese-spy-balloon-shot-down.html , Accessed on 20 February 2023
[ii] Foreign Ministry Spokesperson’s Remarks on the Unintended Entry of a Chinese Unmanned Airship into US Airspace Due to Force Majeure, https://www.mfa.gov.cn/eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/202302/t20230203_11019484.html, Accessed on 20 February 2023
[iii] Mark Magnier and Orange Wang, China-US relations: at Munich meeting, Antony Blinken tells Wang Yi balloon incident ‘must never again occur’, South China Morning Post, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3210722/munich-meeting-antony-blinken-tells-wang-yi-balloon-incident-must-never-again-occur , Accessed on 27 February 2023
[iv] China Lets Online Criticism of US Rip Over Balloon Dispute, Bloomberg, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-02-06/china-lets-online-criticism-of-us-rip-over-balloon-dispute, Accessed on 21 February 2023
[v] Benthany Allen-Ebrahiman, The Chinese Spy Balloon Drama from inside China, https://www.axios.com/2023/02/07/the-chinese-spy-balloon-drama-from-inside-china, Accessed on 21 February 2023
[vi] Helene Cooper, Pentagon Says It Detected a Chinese Spy Balloon Hovering Over Montana, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/02/us/politics/china-spy-balloon-pentagon.html, Accessed on 20 February 2023
[vii] Jeremy Herb, Jennifer Hansler, Kylie Atwood, Manu Raju and Haley Britzky, US Officials Disclosed New Details about the Balloon's Capabilities. Here's What We Know, CNN, https://edition.cnn.com/2023/02/09/politics/spy-balloon-technology/index.html, Accessed on 25 February 2023
[viii] Ellen Nakashima, Shane Harris and Jason Samenow, U.S. tracked China spy balloon from launch on Hainan Island along unusual path, The Washington Post,
https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2023/02/14/china-spy-balloon-path-tracking-weather/ , Accessed on 5 March 2023
[ix] Helene Cooper, Pentagon Says it Detected a Chinese Spy Balloon Hovering Over Montana, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/02/us/politics/china-spy-balloon-pentagon.html, Accessed on 20 February 2023
[x] Daisy Cherry and Ted Kemp, The U.S. and China Met to Discuss the ‘Spy Balloon.’ Their Statements Afterward were very Different, CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2023/02/23/spy-balloon-comparing-us-china-statements-after-blinken-wang-met.html, Accessed on 27 February 2023
[xi] Mark Magnier and Orange Wang, China-US relations: at Munich Meeting, Antony Blinken Tells Wang Yi Balloon Incident ‘must never again occur’, South China Morning Post, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3210722/munich-meeting-antony-blinken-tells-wang-yi-balloon-incident-must-never-again-occur, Accessed on 27 February 2023
[xii] Kartik Bommakanti, The Chinese are Monitoring Their Enemies on the Cheap with Spy Balloons, https://www.orfonline.org/research/the-chinese-are-monitoring-their-enemies-on-the-cheap-with-spy-balloons/, Accessed on 25 February 2023
[xiii] Spy balloons: What Are They and Why Are They Still Being Used?, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/feb/03/spy-balloons-what-are-they-and-why-are-they-still-being-used#:~:text=When%20were%20they%20first%20used,during%20the%20French%20revolutionary%20wars
[xiv] Pentagon Says It is Monitoring Chinese Spy Balloon Spotted Flying Over US, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/feb/02/pentagon-chinese-spy-balloon, Accessed on 25 February 2023
[xv] Huaxia, Xi Stresses Grasping, Advancing Chinese Modernization, Xi stresses grasping, advancing Chinese modernization-Xinhua (news.cn), Accessed on 26 February 2023
[xvi] Michael Schuman, Red Zeppelin, The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2023/02/chinese-spy-balloon-incident-china-west-divide/673011/, Accessed on 25 February 2023
[xvii] The Global Security Initiative Concept Paper, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjbxw/202302/t20230221_11028348.html, Accessed on 2 March 2023