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Chinese Surveillance Balloon Shot Down by US Military: Uncovering the Extent of Beijing’s Spying Program

A Chinese surveillance balloon that was shot down by the US military off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4 is part of an extensive, state-run spying program, according to US intelligence officials. The incident has caused a strain in the already-fraught US-China relationship, and led Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a high-profile trip to Beijing.[0]

The balloon, which Beijing claimed was a civilian airship that had gone off course, is part of a fleet of high-altitude surveillance balloons that have conducted at least two dozen missions over at least five continents in recent years.[0] US intelligence agencies tracked the balloon from its launch in China and watched as it may have been inadvertently blown into U.S. airspace.

The balloon first crossed into US airspace over Alaska on January 28.[1] US officials said it was not determined to have “hostile intent” and did not believe it would impact aviation routes or present a significant intelligence gathering ability until it began drifting over the lower 48 states.[2]

But the US government took action, shooting down the balloon with a fighter jet on Feb. 4. US Northern Command later said it had recovered critical electronics, including key sensors presumably used for intelligence gathering.[3] John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said the objects did not appear to be involved in intelligence collection against the United States.[4]

The White House has asserted that the three objects, which had been initially thought to be of extraterrestrial or Chinese origin, are likely for “some commercial or benign purpose.” and that there is no evidence to suggest otherwise.[1] US Navy divers also helped recover parts of the balloon from the Atlantic Ocean, which they said included all of the priority sensor and electronics pieces identified, as well as large sections of the structure.[5]

The incident has highlighted the growing trend of spy balloons, which are capable of collecting data that can be used to develop hypersonic weapons.[6] It has also underscored the militarization of the stratosphere, with the US and China both engaged in efforts to develop balloon-based technology.[7] US officials have also briefed representatives of 40 countries on the balloon flights, in an effort to provide more information on the scope of the Chinese spying program.[8]

0. “Blinken eyes balloon détente in possible meeting with Chinese counterpart” Axios, 16 Feb. 2023, https://www.axios.com/2023/02/16/blinken-chinese-diplomat-munich

1. “Chinese Spy Balloon ‘Graphic Reminder’ Of Geopolitical Market Risks—Here’s What It Means For Stocks” Forbes, 15 Feb. 2023, https://www.forbes.com/sites/dereksaul/2023/02/15/chinese-spy-balloon-graphic-reminder-of-geopolitical-market-risks-heres-what-it-means-for-stocks

2. “US officials disclosed new details about the balloon's capabilities. Here's what we know” CNN, 10 Feb. 2023, https://www.cnn.com/2023/02/09/politics/spy-balloon-technology/index.html

3. “Objects shot down aren't from China, likely ‘benign,' Kirby says” POLITICO, 14 Feb. 2023, https://www.politico.com/news/2023/02/14/objects-shot-down-arent-from-china-likely-benign-kirby-says-00082876

4. “The 3 flying objects the US shot down may have been commercial or research craft, White House says” Business Insider, 15 Feb. 2023, https://www.businessinsider.com/white-house-3-objects-commercial-research-no-evidence-china-spying-2023-2

5. “Chinese balloon sensors recovered from ocean, says US” BBC, 14 Feb. 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-64633705

6. “Chinese Spy Balloon Has Unexpected Maneuverability” Scientific American, 3 Feb. 2023, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/chinese-spy-balloon-has-unexpected-maneuverability

7. “Spy Balloons Are a Growth Industry” New York Magazine, 14 Feb. 2023, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2023/02/spy-balloons-are-a-growth-industry.html

8. “China's Balloon-Size Blunder Is a Huge Opportunity” The Atlantic, 13 Feb. 2023, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2023/02/chinese-spy-balloon-xi-jinping/673038