Washington, Beijing (15/2 – 37.5)
Amid an international atmosphere still full of uncertainties as well as tensions, US fighter aircraft shot down the balloon flying over Billing, Maine. According to the US Department of State, the spy balloon contained multiple antennas capable of gathering intelligence signals from the superpowers.
“From the photographs taken, it is confirmed the presence of an antenna package capable of collecting data and tracking communications,” the US government said, quoted by CNBC International, Thursday (10/2/2023). “There are solar panels large enough to produce power so that various sensors to gather intelligence can operate.”
US notified China of the shooting. As expected, China immediately protested and accused the US of violating the international convention. China claimed that the balloon was for civilian purposes, and that is why it lodged a protest when it was shot down.
Meanwhile, the sensors from a suspected Chinese spy balloon shot down over the US earlier this month have been recovered from the Atlantic Ocean. Search crews found “significant debris from the site, including all of the priority sensor and electronics pieces identified”, said US Northern Command. The FBI is examining the items, which the US said were used to spy on sensitive military sites. The US has shot down three more objects since the first on 4 February.
The US will continue to pay more attention to this effort to expose China’s spying efforts that endanger the security of the country and its allies. The Pentagon Media Team said the US had collected various information about China’s spy balloons so that in the future it could detect if a similar attempt was made.
James Lewis, an expert on technology and public policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, pointed out that the use of balloons for intelligence has downsides. “The problem with balloons is that they go where the winds take them. ‘Loitering’ is both unpredictable and not essential for collecting against static targets (like missile bases),” he said.
A spy balloon is in itself nothing new, and it has been used before, even during World War II. It is thus an old technique, cheap to operate, albeit not very accurate in its secret gathering function. In a statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in Beijing, the Chinese side said they had previously verified the situation and communicated several times with the US regarding the drone. China considers that the US reaction to calling the drone a “spy balloon” is excessive and wrong.
“A spokesperson for the US Department of Defense said the balloon presented no military or physical threat to people on the ground. Nonetheless, the US reaction was so excessive as to use force to seriously violate international practice,” the MFA statement.
The incident resulted in several repercussions, such as the cancellation of a visit by US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken to China, as a follow-up of Presidents Xi and Biden’s meeting at the G20 in Bali, November 2022. This was followed by a visit of Foreign Secretary Qin Gang to Russian Foreign Secretary Lavrov in Moscow, signaling an ever-closer relationship between China and Russia. Up until recently, China refrained from using the term “invasion” for the Russian military campaign against Ukraine, while also not openly supporting it.
This incident will only add complications to maintaining bilateral relations between the US and China. It may also inspire closer relations between China and Russia, which is not good for Ukraine in its fight against Russia with huge help from the US and its allies.