China Has an Innocent Explanation for Its Balloon

Beijing says it's merely a weather balloon, but Blinken postpones his trip to China
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 3, 2023 9:56 AM CST
China Has an Innocent Explanation for Its Balloon
A balloon from China floats over Billings, Mont., on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023.   (Larry Mayer/The Billings Gazette via AP)

It's a not a spy balloon, China insists. Instead, the suspicious object spotted floating over Montana is merely a weather balloon that got blown off course, according to China's foreign ministry. Not surprisingly, the explanation isn't making the controversy go away. On Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a planned visit to China this weekend as the US assesses the controversy, reports CNBC. Coverage:

  • Skeptical: A US intelligence official tells the AP the US has "very high confidence" that it is, in fact, a spy balloon that has been trying to collect data from sensitive (but unspecified) sites in the US. Someone in a commercial aircraft first spotted it earlier in the week, per the Wall Street Journal.
  • China's explanation: "The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes,” says a statement on the website of China's foreign ministry. “Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure.” The latter phrase refers to a violation of protocol beyond a state's control, per the New York Times.

  • Still up there: The US is closely tracking the high-altitude balloon but isn't saying where it currently is. The Pentagon has opted not to shoot it down because of the danger of floating debris, per the Washington Post.
  • Balloons? Yes, spy balloons are still a thing, even in the age of satellites, explains CNN. Advances in miniaturized electronics have made modern balloons far more effective than those from decades ago. They're also relatively cheap, and they can escape detection by today's surveillance technology. Another advantage "is that they can be steered using onboard computers to take advantage of winds and they can go up and down to a limited degree," adds one expert.
  • Balloons, take II: The Journal notes that balloons can be used not just for surveillance but for tracking missiles and as "nodes for communication links." Says another think tank expert: “We are seeing a return to a tool of the Cold War being used in an era of renewed great power competition."
  • Spying on what? If it is a spy balloon, what is it looking at? Unclear. Montana is home to about 150 ICBM silos, notes the Times. Also, “they could be scooping up signals intelligence, in other words, they’re looking at our cell phone traffic, our radio traffic,” a military analyst tells CNN. Either way, the US says it has taken unspecified steps to keep sensitive data safe.
  • Politics: The White House is under pressure from lawmakers in both parties—but especially from the right—to respond forcefully. “The Chinese Communist Party should not have on-demand access to American airspace," says a joint statement from GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher and Democratic Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, leaders of a House select committee on China. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy tweeted that President Biden "cannot be silent."
(The US just made a move in the Philippines to counter Chinese authority in the Asia-Pacific region.)

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