Log In

Reset Password
  • MENU
    Saturday, April 01, 2023

    China balloon saga spotlights Beijing's global surveillance push

    In this photo provided by Chad Fish, the remnants of a large balloon drift above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina, with a fighter jet and its contrail seen below it, Feb. 4, 2023. The downing of the suspected Chinese spy balloon by a missile from an F-22 fighter jet created a spectacle over one of the state's tourism hubs and drew crowds reacting with a mixture of bewildered gazing, distress and cheering. (Chad Fish via AP, File)

    The high-profile spectacle of an alleged Chinese surveillance balloon flying over the continental U.S. is shining a spotlight on the prevalence of similar incidents around the world, from Taipei to Latin America.

    While the U.S. is believed to use such devices, officials have said the balloon downed off the South Carolina coast this weekend is part of a broader global surveillance program rolled out by Beijing.

    It highlights the escalating intelligence battle between the U.S. and China, utilizing everything from geostationary satellites and signals intercepts to old-fashioned spy craft. Now balloons are seen as a key part of that arsenal.

    Officials in Beijing conceded that the balloon that drifted across the U.S. mainland last week came from China, but they rejected the Pentagon's claim that it was intended for spying, instead suggesting it was a purely meteorological instrument that drifted off track, and accusing Washington of hyping the incident.

    That claim may be harder to sustain as the U.S. military sends divers to salvage the equipment, and scrutiny intensifies of previous episodes with similar-looking equipment.

    In recent years Chinese balloons have been spotted over countries across five continents, including in East Asia, South Asia and Europe, a senior U.S. defense official said Saturday.

    In Taiwan, a balloon was reported to have hovered for several hours over the Taipei's Songshan Airport, which is also used by the military base, in March, Central Weather Bureau Director-General Cheng Ming-dean said in an interview with local media. He said the balloon was similar to the one spotted in the U.S. last week.

    The news of balloons appearing over Taiwan sparked concern in Taipei, with lawmakers from across the political spectrum urging the military to be on alert and to explain their procedures for how they plan to handle any future incursions. The balloons have been around for a long time, Mind-dean wrote in a Facebook post on Saturday. He previously cited a high-altitude balloon seen hovering over Taipei in 2021.

    Japanese media have reported at least two visually-similar balloons floating over different parts of the country. After a sighting over northeast Japan in 2020, then-Defense Minister Kono Taro said at the time he had confirmed it didn't belong to the country's Self-Defense Forces' weather section. In the end, Japan's police and military were unable to confirm who launched it, or why, broadcaster TV Asahi said. A second incident occurred in 2021.

    Under President Xi Jinping, China has overhauled its military - pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into reorganizing the command structure and upgrading everything from warships to missile stockpiles. That includes investing in the near-space area as well. Those are regions "too high for most airplanes, too low for satellites," which the Chinese consider a separate domain, according to William Kim, a consultant at The Marathon Initiative, a Washington-based think tank.

    On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told reporters that a balloon reported over Latin America was, like the U.S. one, also blown off course because it has "limited self-steering capability." She said China follows international law, adding that "we will not pose any threat to any country."

    Balloons like the one blown apart Saturday are not uncommon, but this time the Chinese made a mistake by flying it low enough to be spotted by commercial pilots and people on the ground, according to one person familiar with the matter. Typically balloons like the one shot down fly above 80,000 feet and as high as 100,000 feet.

    Salvaged debris from the Chinese balloon could be an intelligence boon for the U.S., helping it understand what capabilities Beijing has developed and what it may have been looking for. It will also offer another potentially embarrassing moment for Beijing when the material is laid out for public view.

    "They're going to want to give evidence that this is indeed a surveillance balloon and debunk the idea that this is some sort of weather balloon," The Marathon Initiative's Kim said.

    They'll also be looking to understand the capabilities of the Chinese military. "What are they using to gather intelligence essentially?" he added. "If it's taking pictures, which we don't know yet, what kind of camera does it have on? If it's collecting signals, which is another theory, what kind of intelligence-collection capabilities does it have?"

    There's also interest in whether the U.S. can use the salvaged equipment to assess whether it contains technology from the U.S. or its allies, as well the original manufacturers.

    "The key question that no one is asking is who makes these balloons," said Michael Raska, assistant professor and coordinator of the Military Transformations Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. If U.S. officials can access the data or software code of the system, they may be able to retrieve some digital footprints, he said.


    Bloomberg's Bruce Einhorn, Isabel Reynolds, Samson Ellis, Philip Glamann and Phila Siu contributed to this report.

    Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.