Suspected surveillance balloon strains China-United States relations

Here’s how it went down


Council of Foreign Relations

From Jan. 28 to Feb. 4, a high-altitude balloon of Chinese origin entered American airspace, heading southeast from Montana to the Carolinas. The balloon was shot down by the Air Force over the Atlantic on Saturday, causing a political uproar.

“China’s brazen disregard for U.S. sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed, and President Biden cannot be silent,” McCarthy tweeted.

Republicans criticized President Joe Biden for his slow response; however, Biden was advised by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to wait before shooting it, due to the risk of debris endangering property and civilians on land. 

“It’s very clear to me that the intelligence value of this from a standpoint of what it was getting was not worth the risk of killing an American on the ground, and it’s a substantial package in terms of its size. And even in the less dense areas of the country, there was that possibility. And I know that’s why we waited to this point to take it down,” retired admiral and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen said in an interview with ABC News

Chinese spy balloons have crossed into U.S. territory before, but never over specific U.S. sites. The balloon passed over U.S. military bases and fields housing nuclear missiles in sensitive areas in Montana. 

“That’s when we knew this was different,” a U.S. official said.

As a result, Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a Feb. 5-6 trip to Beijing that was originally designed to dial down tensions between the two countries. The Chinese Foreign Ministry argued that the balloon was merely a “civilian airship” used for weather research. However, U.S. officials argue otherwise. 

“We have learned technical things about this balloon and its surveillance capabilities,” the Pentagon official said. “And I suspect if we are successful in recovering aspects of the debris, we will learn even more.”

As of Feb. 6, officials are analyzing the balloon debris to learn about the true purpose of its flight.