Chinese Air Balloon Shot Down – A Question of Surveillance?

Two Air Force Jets in the sky with a superimposed photo of the chinese air balloon
The US shot down a Chinese air balloon on February 4, 2023, after the balloon had traversed over parts of the US and Canada. Although the balloon was travelling over the US for a while and President Biden approved its shooting down, armed forces waited until the balloon was over the Atlantic Ocean, so there was no question of possible injury to citizens.

Reactions were mixed, with some expressing worry while others viewed it as a clear threat. Many people noted that much of the balloon’s potential security information is likely readily available on the internet.

Not the First Balloon over the US

Interestingly enough, this is not the first surveillance balloon that has floated over the US. In fact, there have been at least 4 other documented balloons; however, those other balloons did not register as threats and were not detected until after they had already passed over the US. This balloon was different in that it’s trip lasted a week and it was well documented in its path. The previous balloons were located over Texas, Florida, Hawaii, and Guam.

Chinese espionage is considered sophisticated and first-rate, so it is unusual for this big, awkward balloon, which could be seen unassisted with a telescope or other instrument, to fly over the US. One theory is that China deliberately wanted to evoke a reaction by testing the US’s response to overt spying. Another theory is that China was observing the US’s reaction to their statements that the balloon was a high-altitude weather tracker and not for spying, to see if the US would trust such statements.

Removing the Balloon from the Sky

The balloon was removed from the sky without incident by an F-22 Raptor fighter from Langley Air Force Base, using an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile. Lines were drawn between the Republican and Democratic parties in response to the timing of the removal. Republicans felt that the balloon was allowed to fly for longer than necessary, while Democrats felt that the safety of US citizens was a more pressing concern than the balloon remaining in the sky.

China has issued statements claiming that they feel the US overreacted and used unnecessary force to remove the balloon. They state that they were not purposely provoking any use of force, and that the US demonstrated unwarranted hostility toward China’s property by doing so. The true purpose of the balloon will seemingly remain a mystery until the debris can be recovered from the relatively shallow waters close to South Carolina where it fell.

Additionally, a meeting that Antony Blinken was scheduled to have in Beijing has been cancelled due to this recent mishap, and it is unclear whether it will be postponed or need to be rescheduled. One thing is very certain: this balloon has touched a nerve with all parties involved and may have elevated tensions between the two countries. It remains to be seen what other conflicts or tensions may arise from what can be determined from the debris of the balloon. Will the US discover that it was used for a spying technique, or will the discoveries potentially require the US to issue an apology to China? It will be interesting to see how the final act of the Chinese balloon plays out.

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