Why the discovery of a Chinese balloon in US skies is such a big deal

Tensions between the U.S. and China are on the rise again after the discovery of what the Biden administration is describing as a sophisticated Chinese espionage tool flying over the United States.

The discovery of a massive Chinese surveillance balloon over Montana, which hosts some nuclear silos, sparked a diplomatic crisis on Friday, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken quickly postponing a high-stakes trip to Beijing hours before he was set to leave. 

Senior U.S. officials across the Departments of State and Defense lodged complaints with their Chinese counterparts, underscoring the anger across the Biden administration.

Republicans in Congress slammed both China and the administration over the fact that the balloon had made it into U.S. skies, calling it a serious security breach. 

And from China, there was a sense of chagrin, with the nation issuing a statement accepting responsibility for a private balloon flying into U.S. airspace. Beijing said it regretted this had happened. 

Some say the Chinese spy balloon is significant

A high altitude balloon floats over Billings, Mont., on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. The Pentagon would not confirm that the balloon in the photo was the surveillance balloon. (AP)

The discovery is a severe incident, said Jacob Stokes, a senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security, and one that is testing how the U.S. and Chinese can cool tensions.

“I think this incident tells us what we already knew about the state of the U.S.-China relationship. The two powers are locked in an intense geopolitical rivalry, and that’s both the reason we need effective diplomatic engagement, and simultaneously, the major obstacle to those channels working effectively to avoid competition from spiraling out of control,” he said.

Others downplay the threat from the Chinese balloon

Some experts expressed caution at overstating the threat from the Chinese balloon.

“I don’t know exactly what the balloon is collecting but [if it] were important then it would probably have been shot down long ago,” Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project and associate senior fellow to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, told The Hill.

“That said, it’s the latest chapter in a global trend of an increasing number of unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles used by countries for intelligence collection.”

What will be done about the balloon?

Pentagon press secretary and Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said the Pentagon expects the balloon will be over the U.S. for a few days. (AP)

Press secretary and Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said Friday that the Pentagon expects the balloon will be over the U.S. for a few days. It is reviewing options over whether to destroy it, given concerns over falling debris.

It’s not the first time the U.S. has observed surveillance flights, U.S. officials said, but the timing of Blinken’s trip to Beijing and the balloon’s movements prompted a firmer response.

“It is appearing to hang out for a longer period of time, this time around, [and is] more persistent than in previous instances,” a senior defense official told reporters in a briefing Thursday night. That would be one distinguishing factor.”   

Have spy balloons been in the U.S. before?

A U.S. official told The Washington Post that Chinese spy balloons had been observed in Hawaii last year and other times in the Pacific.

Timothy Heath, senior international defense researcher with the RAND Corporation, said surveillance balloons — the use of which stretches back to the Civil War — present a relatively cheap and difficult-to-detect method of intelligence collection. 

“They can be hard to detect because there’s not a lot of metal on them, so radars will not easily find them … you can position them in a place and just keep them there. Newer technologies allow little motors to be attached so you can make adjustments to the position of the balloon and then they can just stay in a place for quite a while,” he said.

They hold an advantage over satellites which when discovered, are predictable given their orbital path, he said. 

“So these are reasons why China has taken an interest in balloons.”

Balloon seen as serious provocation

Still, the balloon’s discovery over sensitive American military locations marks a serious provocation and comes at a time when U.S. and Chinese military tensions are extremely high, said Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former deputy assistant to the National Security Council.

“It’s possible China is trying to probe and see how this administration will react to something like this. It’s possible they are trying to test whether the Biden administration is distracted by the war in Ukraine.”

The U.S. views China as its main competitor on nearly every front — diplomatic, military, economic and ideological — and Blinken’s trip to Beijing was expected to manage these areas of fraught competition from spiraling into conflict. 

U.S. concerns with China plentiful

Among the most immediate concerns is avoiding a U.S. and Chinese military confrontation over Taiwan, where Washington fears Beijing is preparing an invasion of the self-ruled island within the next few years.

China has sided with Russia amid its military assault on Ukraine, has expanded its nuclear weapons stockpile and is generally seen as holding  ambitions to overtake the U.S. militarily, technologically and economically. 

Jim Townsend, who served as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for European and NATO policy during the Obama administration, described the Chinese surveillance balloon as operating in a “gray area” of conflict — activities security analysts describe as being provocative and disruptive, but below the threshold of kinetic military activity, challenging how the target can mount a proportional response.

“It’s the Chinese screwing with us,” he said. “They’re pushing us to see how we will respond.”

Republicans hammer Biden’s response to balloon

Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio, have criticized President Biden’s response to the Chinese balloon incident. (AP)

Republicans quickly seized on the Chinese balloon’s intrusion to hammer the Biden administration, accusing the Pentagon and President Biden of being soft on China.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in a Friday appearance on “The Mike Gallagher Show” that it was “disappointing” the Pentagon “chose not to bring it down when it was over a sparsely populated area where they could have retrieved it.”

“If these things are flying over our airspace, and there’s an opportunity to bring them down, we’re going to do it,” Rubio said. “We’re not going to do it in a way that’s going to fall on a major city and kill anyone … [but] we have to make that pretty clear.”

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) sent a letter to the Pentagon Thursday night demanding answers about the balloon after it was spotted in Montana, where a major air force base, Malmstrom Air Force Base, houses nuclear missiles.

“The administration failed to protect our border and now has failed to protect our skies,” Daines tweeted.

What happens going forward?

Heath, of the RAND Corporation, said it will be important to follow how the Department of Defense talks about Chinese surveillance and intelligence in the coming days, whether they will choose to disclose more information about Chinese tactics and motivations or provide an opening to resume diplomatic talks. 

“Are we going to see other follow-on disclosures of other things the Chinese are doing that signal that the U.S. government is actually moving in a more hardline direction?” he asked. “Versus if this appears to be a one off, and the U.S. government has signaled that it wants to resume talks and ease tensions, that would reveal a disposition that’s much more inclined towards reducing tensions.”

Tags Antony Blinken Antony Blinken China China balloon Jacob Stokes Joe Biden Montana russia Taiwan ukraine

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