Bloomberg — After floating over the US for days, a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon has been shot down. But aftershocks from the saga continue to reverberate, with planned talks for the nations’ top diplomats derailed and new tensions injected into the already-strained relations between the world’s two largest economies.
Here’s everything we know so far:
1. What’s a surveillance balloon?
Cheap, quiet and hard to reach — balloons have long been used for reconnaissance purposes, including in conflicts like the American Civil War. The practice became widespread during World War I and was used extensively during the Cold War, when the US launched hundreds of balloons to gather intelligence on the Soviet Union and China. While their use has declined with the rise of unmanned drones and satellites, many countries still employ spy balloons. The Pentagon is expanding investment in high-altitude inflatables, Politico reported last year. Modern balloons, like those of the US, have the ability to not only capture images but intercept communications. They can also extend cellular service and the range of drones and other military assets. A senior Biden administration official told Bloomberg News that the balloon has a small motor and propellers, distinguishing it from other devices that generally are not maneuverable.
2. What do we know about the balloon that was shot down?
According to the US defense officials, the balloon has a payload the size of several buses. It first passed into US sovereign airspace on Jan. 28, north of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. It traveled east across the northern part of the state, then into the far northwest of Canadian airspace on Jan. 30. It swung south back into the US again above northern Idaho on Jan. 31.
The Biden administration disclosed the balloon’s existence on Feb. 2, as it was floating over the western state of Montana. The location is sensitive, since the state is home to the Air Force’s 341st Missile Wing and its Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles.
China’s foreign ministry, in turn, denied that the balloon was used for surveillance, instead saying that it was a civilian airship used for meteorological and other scientific research. It said the airship’s limited maneuverability and westerly winds caused it to be accidentally blown off-course into the US. In response, US defense officials said they are confident the balloon was a surveillance device seeking to monitor sensitive military sites.
3. How was the balloon shot down and why wasn’t it done earlier?
After the balloon drifted across the central US to the ocean off the coast of South Carolina, the US dispatched a single F-22 fighter to 58,000 feet (18,000 meters) that fired an Aim-9X Sidewinder missile. The balloon, which was floating between 60 to 65,000 feet, was shot down within US airspace at 2:39 p.m. on Feb. 4. Film footage of the process showed the balloon popping and the equipment it was carrying crashing into the ocean. China was not given any advance notice before the balloon was shot down.
While US President Joe Biden initially authorized the balloon to be shot down on Feb. 1, it was on the condition that it be accomplished without undue risk to US civilians below. That meant the action could only happen when it was traveling over the water. Officials contemplated bringing down the balloon as it floated over sparsely populated areas of Montana, but that plan was shelved due to safety reasons. The “sizable” object could cause widespread damage, they said. In fact, it created a debris field with a seven mile radius when it was shot down.
4. Was the balloon a security threat?
American officials have asserted that the balloon has limited ability to collect additional meaningful data beyond what the Chinese can already gather through their satellite network. Still, Biden administration officials have told Bloomberg News they believe Chinese surveillance balloons are able to photograph facilities from different angles than satellites, providing a unique advantage. The dirigibles can also be deployed unexpectedly – so the US has less time to hide assets they are hoping to keep secret – and often have infrared sensors that provide different information than satellites. US defense officials also said that they were able to take “immediate steps to protect against the balloon’s collection of sensitive information,” mitigating its intelligence value to China. The US has also said it learned technical details about the device and its surveillance capabilities, with more information potentially to be gleaned in a “relatively short time” after it’s recovered from the ocean.
5. Why has China sent the balloon up now?
The Chinese have for decades complained about US surveillance by ships and spy planes near its own territory, leading to occasional confrontations over the years. Chinese government surveillance balloons transited the continental US briefly at least three times during the Trump administration and once at the beginning of Biden’s term in office, according to US defense officials.
But it’s unclear exactly why the balloon was flying over the US, and the devices have never been observed flying for such a long period of time. The fly-by came just days before US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to visit Beijing. The conflict scuttled China’s diplomatic efforts to create a constructive backdrop for the first US secretary of state visit to China since Michael Pompeo’s trip in 2018.
More broadly, the US has said the balloons are part of a fleet developed by China, with another detected over Central and South America. They have also been spotted over countries in East and South Asia, as well as Europe, spanning five continents in the past several years.
6. How have the US and China responded?
The Biden administration decided to postpone Blinken’s upcoming trip to Beijing, saying that going now would send the wrong signal. “China’s decision to fly a surveillance balloon over the continental US is both unacceptable and irresponsible — that’s what this is about,” Blinken said in a press conference announcing the delay. “It created conditions that undermined the very purpose of the trip.”
China in turn called for relevant parties to handle the matter in a “cool-headed way.” Top envoy, State Councilor Wang Yi, called for timely communication to avoid misunderstandings during a conversation with Blinken on Feb. 3. But China’s foreign ministry protested the shooting down of the balloon, accusing the US of a “clear overreaction” that violated international practices. It also said it reserved the right to respond.
It remains unclear what this means for relations between the two nations. Biden and his administration have faced a barrage of criticism from Republicans saying his administration is weak on China, and should have gotten rid of the balloon immediately. That could mean greater congressional pressure to act tough on China and another tit-for-tat round of retaliatory measures that risk spiraling out of control.
On the other hand, some experts believe the decision to postpone Blinken’s trip instead of cancelling it indicates a willingness by the US to maintain open channels of communication. Some Biden administration officials believe both countries have reasons to put the incident behind them, despite potential difficulties ahead.
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