Breaking Down the US-China Spy Balloon Incident

On February 4th, the US military shot down a Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina, sparking a crisis as the balloon wafted across the middle of the continental US and out to sea.[0] This incident has put a spotlight on China’s extensive surveillance program, which has been operating for years and spans the globe. The balloon allegedly contained sensitive equipment that could be used to listen to US communications and pinpoint the location of those talking on the ground.[1]

The US intelligence community believes the Chinese balloon is part of an extensive surveillance program run in part out of Hainan by the Chinese military. The balloon was traveling at an altitude of approximately 60,000 feet and might have been gathering intelligence.[2] It flew over military sites, and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied the allegation, saying “it is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes.”[2] Debris from the balloon is now being retrieved and analyzed in order to gain further insight into Chinese technology.[3]

High-altitude balloons, which hover at about the same height as commercial airlines fly, can typically take clearer images than the lowest orbiting satellites.[4] They have some advantages over satellites when it comes to surveillance, but also carry different risks — as Beijing recently learned when the US shot down a Chinese spy balloon flying in US airspace.[5]

In response to the incident, the US State Department briefed representatives of 40 countries on the flights just days after the first balloon’s appearance.[6] Public briefings by national-security officials are taking place, and they are making an effort to declassify data regarding Chinese activity.[6] The Biden administration has determined that the Chinese balloon was operating with electronic surveillance technology capable of monitoring US communications.

On Tuesday, the White House speculated that the three objects that were shot down over North America last weekend could have been utilized for either commercial or research purposes.[7] Initial assessments indicate there’s no evidence that the objects are part of the Chinese government’s spying program or intelligence collection against the US, but they have not yet been recovered.[7]

Senators received a classified briefing on the China spy balloon and the three other shoot-down incidents on Capitol Hill on Tuesday morning.[8] It was clear the objects posed no immediate harm to Americans on the ground, but briefers were short on details about what the three objects were.[9]

0. “House briefing on China spy balloon turns tense with Greene comments: ‘I chewed them out’” The Hill, 9 Feb. 2023,

1. “Why U.S. Air Defenses Failed to Spot Chinese Spy Balloons” TIME, 10 Feb. 2023,

2. “The UFOs and Chinese balloon are a Sputnik moment for the space industry”, 13 Feb. 2023,

3. “Objects shot down aren't from China, likely ‘benign,' Kirby says” POLITICO, 14 Feb. 2023,

4. “Chinese spy balloon over the US: An aerospace expert explains how the balloons work and what they can see” The Conversation, 4 Feb. 2023,

5. “Why China has both spy balloons and spy satellites” Axios, 14 Feb. 2023,

6. “China's Balloon-Size Blunder Is a Huge Opportunity” The Atlantic, 13 Feb. 2023,

7. “The 3 flying objects the US shot down may have been commercial or research craft, White House says” Business Insider, 15 Feb. 2023,

8. “White House says a leading explanation for the 3 downed unidentified objects is that they were commercial or benign” NBC News, 14 Feb. 2023,

9. “A ‘leading explanation' is 3 downed objects were commercial, benign balloons, White House says” ABC News, 14 Feb. 2023,