China’s Balloon in US Airspace: Diplomatic Tension and Spying Concerns

By Carter Cormier

Once spotted flying over Montana in early February, news concerning China’s “Meteorologist Balloon” has spread in a frenzy. The balloon has caused both apprehensive and defensive dialogues between the United States and China. 

As of recently, the diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and China has been thoroughly strained. Trade wars, embargos on semiconductors, and human rights violations within China have all added to this growing tension. To address and perhaps mitigate these rising tensions, U.S. diplomat Antony Blinken was due to visit China on the 5th of February. Unfortunately, the meeting was canceled after governmental officials accused China of using the balloon to spy and illegally survey secretive military bases. 

Responding to the allegations, China says that it “regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace.” China claimed the balloon, unmanned and with no navigational devices, drifted into Montana airspace unintentionally. Defending it in that it was merely a civilian airship deployed for research purposes only. 

Later, following Blinken canceling the trip, China insisted the meeting was never officially announced. The day after, February 4th, Biden gives the go-ahead to bring down the balloon using a jet-launched missile. This is primarily due to a nearby nuclear missile site, containing sensitive and classified information. According to U.S. officials, the balloon “was clearly for intelligence surveillance and inconsistent with the equipment onboard weather balloons.” As well as maintaining that the balloon was equipped with solar panels large enough to power “multiple active intelligence collection sensors”.

Interestingly, this instance is not the first time neither China nor the U.S. has sent surveillance balloons into other countries. When it comes to airborne reconnaissance, China does not sit alone. The U.S. is arguably the world leader in surveillance due to its high military budget and advancements in reconnaissance equipment like high-resolution cameras.

In all, China does not bear the weight of spying alone. World powers like Russia, the U.S., and China have all dealt with aerial spying in the past. In fact, China claims to have spotted 10 American high-altitude balloons in Chinese airspace as of January of last year. In response to this accusation, Blinken attested that “We do not send spy balloons over China, period.” Essentially, when it comes to governments spying on other countries, operations from all parties are disputed, controversial, and inconclusive. 

Yet this is not where the story ends. Absurdly, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has reassured the more conspiratorial people of America: “There is no – again, no — indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns.” In a bold spree of takedowns, from February 10th to the 12th, the U.S. government has shot down at least 3 other unidentified objects in United States airspace. These objects were shot down due to both similarities to the previously identified Chinese air balloon and due to the threat they posed to civilian air traffic, resting at about 40,000 feet in the air. 

Although suspicious, these objects could have easily been civilian-owned and operated. In fact, representative Jim Himes of the House Intelligence Committee speculated, “It could be just residual experiments that were done by anyone, frankly. They might actually be active Wi-Fi balloons. They might actually be active weather balloons. I’m relatively sure that they’re not a threat in any way to the people of the United States or to our national security.” Altogether, this debacle shows that the U.S. government is at the very least thorough in its efforts to prevent spying from countries. 

Nevertheless, the Chinese balloon, whether for weather or surveillance, was out of place in American airspace. The back and forth between the American government and China exemplify the ever-growing tension between the two countries. This concerning exchange will surely affect the many inevitable subsequent diplomatic interactions worsening an already strained foreign relationship.