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The Chinese Spy Balloon: Another Attempt to Collect Intelligence

In the past week, the world watched as a Chinese spy balloon traveled from the western states and over to the East Coast, according to CNMC. It was shot down over the Carolina coast on February 4, and the Navy is currently examining the debris, CNN noted.

This spy balloon from China was the size of several buses, and it carried sophisticated surveillance equipment. The Chinese spy balloon was anything but a covert operation, however. It was in plain sight throughout its journey and naturally got the attention of Washington policy makers, which may have been the original intention of Beijing.

What Did the Chinese Spy Balloon Do?

The use of balloons to gather information is not new. Using balloons like this one has some advantages. For instance, this type of espionage does not require a manned aircraft to fly over enemy air space, so a pilot’s life is not at risk. Also, the balloon can travel more closely to the ground than satellites in low-earth orbit, so its equipment could see into restricted areas more easily, according to Fortune.

In this case, it appears the balloon was released in a time and location that allowed winds to take it over a target area, a process that meteorologists can calculate.

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), James Andrew Lewis, senior vice president and director of the Strategic Technologies Program at CSIS, made some interesting remarks concerning the capabilities of the Chinese spy balloon. He noted, “The balloon could radio back any collected data, perhaps even to a Chinese satellite overhead, but there have been no reports of radio transmission from the balloon. Collecting data but being unable to get it back is a waste of time and money. No signal, no payload, no spying.”

So what was China’s motivation in sending this patently obvious balloon over American territory? That is an excellent question. After all, Space notes that China has a complex network of surveillance satellites, and it would be possible to conclude that this balloon simply went astray due to a mistake in calculation.

[Related article: China Faces Numerous Constraints in Reclaiming Taiwan]

US Government’s Official Reaction to the Chinese Spy Balloon

President Biden delayed the takedown of the Chinese spy balloon due to safety concerns about U.S. citizens and property, but finally gave the order. According to The Hill, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin explained that the balloon was shot down “as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives under the balloon’s path. In accordance with the President’s direction, the Department of Defense developed options to take down the balloon safely over our territorial waters, while closely monitoring its path and intelligence collection activities … Today’s deliberate and lawful action demonstrates that President Biden and his national security team will always put the safety and security of the American people first.”

The Biden administration also decided to cancel Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s visit to China. NPR reported that this reaction could be easily characterized as Cold War rhetoric.

I live in North Myrtle Beach, about six miles from the location where the balloon was shot down. It was a clear, sunny day on Saturday afternoon when my husband and I heard a ‘boom’ and felt the floor of our home rumble under our feet. We looked at each other wondering, ‘What could that be?’ I immediately went to Twitter and learned news of the takedown.

Terry Edwards, Director of Copywriting and Compliance at the University.

China’s Reaction

China has downplayed the appearance of its spy balloon over the U.S. NPR noted that “the Chinese say it’s a civilian research balloon that drifted really far off course” and claim that the U.S is overreacting.

According to CNN, China’s Defense Ministry spokesperson Tan Kefei said: “The U.S. used force to attack our civilian unmanned airship, which is an obvious overreaction. We express solemn protest against this move by the US side… [China] reserves the right to use necessary means to deal with similar situations.”

CNN also noted that there were signs that the use of this balloon may have been a mistake, saying that on Saturday, Chinese state media announced that the head of the country’s weather service, Zhuang Guotai, was relieved of his duty.

However, it is unlikely that the Pentagon is accepting this narrative. The Washington Post reported that this Chinese spy balloon had propellers to steer it, and a similar spy balloon was spotted over South America.

What Comes Next?

It does not matter if the use of this Chinese spy balloon was a mistake or a deliberately planned action. Chinese surveillance of U.S. targets has been going on for decades, and countermeasures are greatly needed. This incident is simply a reminder that China has a vast espionage network, and the U.S. needs to keep up its defenses.

Many people will remember that China was behind the 2015 hacking of the Office of Personal Management (OPM) that resulted in the release of information about four million federal workers, according to U.S. News and World Report. This hack was a turning point in the U.S. intelligence warfare against China, but Chinese attempts to collect information is a daily issue, noted the New York Times.

The Chinese Higher Education System’s Influence

Higher education is another front that requires close attention. The Chinese higher education system motivates many students from China to apply to Western universities and create joint ventures with Western institutions, including leading U.S. universities.

It is not a surprise that Chinese intelligence has used American higher education as an avenue to gather information. According to NBC News, there are several cases where students and faculty members from China have been accused of espionage.

In 2020, the U.S. cancelled the student visas of more than 1,000 Chinese students due to intelligence gathering concerns, according to The Guardian. Also, The Nation says that there have been consistent reports over the past decades that the Confucius Institutes, a state-sponsored organization for cultural relations, on American higher education campuses have been a front for intelligence gathering. As a result, several U.S. universities have ceased their cooperation with the Confucius Institutes.

Should the US Worry About TikTok?

The Chinese spy balloon aside, let’s not forget TikTok. TikTok is a popular app created by a private corporation in China that many in the U.S. worry – and rightfully so – that it will share the data it collects with the Chinese government. It might even use its algorithms to influence what Americans see on TikTok.

[Related article: Is a TikTok Ban Coming to the United States?]

Vox reported that ByteDance, the company that owns TikTok, is “spending a lot of money trying to convince detractors that it doesn’t take marching orders from China and that it wouldn’t give the Chinese government US user data or influence US users. The company has spent millions building up and expanding its Washington, DC, presence, and more than $1 billion on “Project Texas,” an effort to rebuild the app on US servers in order to wall it off from ByteDance and China as much as possible, while also promising several layers of independent oversight and transparency.”

Is this protection from ByteDance going to be enough? That is not clear, because it’s all too easy to create backdoors connecting ByteDance and the Chinese government.

Keeping America’s Future Free of Chinese Spy Balloons

While the idea of Chinese espionage is not new to anyone, now is the time to take more action. This incident involving a Chinese spy balloon should be an important reminder to prevent future intelligence gathering attempts from China.

Ilan Fuchs

Dr. Ilan Fuchs is a scholar of international law and legal history. He holds a B.A. in Humanities and Social Science from The Open University of Israel and an M.A. in Jewish history from Bar-Ilan University. Ilan’s other degrees include an LL.B., an LL.M. and a Ph.D. in Law from Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of “Jewish Women’s Torah Study: Orthodox Education and Modernity,” and 18 articles in leading scholarly journals. At the University, Ilan teaches courses on international law while maintaining a law practice in several jurisdictions.

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