Spy balloon drama will impact U.S.-China relations. So what comes next?
By James Rogers
The strange sight of a suspected Chinese spy balloon floating across America has caused one of the more unusual diplomatic rows of recent years, with Washington and Beijing locking horns over the giant object
The strange sight of a suspected Chinese spy balloon floating across America has caused one of the more unusual diplomatic rows of recent years, with Washington and Beijing locking horns over the giant object, which was shot down off the South Carolina coast. With the U.S. on high alert, other "unidentified" objects have subsequently been shot down over Alaska and Canada.
The huge balloon that kicked off the bizarre chain of events was part of a massive aerial spy program linked to China's military, according to the Biden administration. China has angrily denied this, saying that the balloon was a weather airship that strayed off course, and accusing America of overreacting.
On Wednesday, Beijing said it would take measures against entities related to the downing of the balloon, but did not give details. On Thursday, China imposed sanctions on U.S. defense giants Raytheon Technologies Corp. (RTX) and Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) for supplying weapons to Taiwan -- which China has claimed as its own -- and regularly faces military harassment from its much larger neighbor.
Aviation expert David Cenciotti, author of the Aviationist blog, thinks we haven't seen the last of these incidents over North America. "I think there might be more sightings in the near future," the pilot and former Italian Air Force officer told MarketWatch via email. "And I also believe that the rise in aerial shootdowns is somehow linked to the criticism caused by the response to the suspected Chinese spy balloon that flew over the U.S. for days before being shot down."
Related: Spy balloon incident was a 'coordinated effort to gather intelligence,' former NORAD operations director says
Cenciotti said he thinks the balloon likely prompted NORAD radar system changes, which helped spot the other objects that were shot down.
"Monitoring of the airspace has likely been improved, removing some filters that previously discarded slow-moving objects and probably also changing the ROE (Rules Of Engagement) to allow faster engagements and 'decommissions' of these objects," he said. "This will probably lead to more flying objects being investigated by fighters in the future: until the whole process is fine-tuned, some are inevitably going to be 'false positives' (i.e. commercial or private balloons with no nefarious intent); others might really be objects launched by near-peer competitors, like the large Chinese balloon shot down on Feb. 4."
In another twist, the White House said Tuesday there could be a "benign" commercial or research explanation for the three high-altitude objects downed over the weekend.
Kuan-Wei Chen, an expert in international law, and managing editor of the McGill Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space, told MarketWatch that recent events reflect a Chinese ambition that stretches far beyond North America's airspace.
"China has not kept it a secret that it wishes to overtake (particularly) the U.S. and assert its global dominance and superiority in economic, political and military terms," he said via email. "This is not just on Earth, but also in space and cyberspace."
China has certainly been ramping up its space program in recent years. "To explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry and build China into a space power is our eternal dream," said Chinese President Xi Jinping last year. Underlining its ambitions, China used a ballistic missile to destroy a satellite in 2021, sparking concern about space debris.
Related: 'Leading explanation' for 3 objects shot down over weekend is they were 'benign' balloons, White House says
Chen, who was born in Taiwan, said he was surprised at "how brazenly" China's most recent surveillance/intelligence gathering operation was conducted. "What is also surprising is how China seems to believe it can flagrantly violate the sovereign airspace and sovereignty of other States and feel like it can spin the narrative and get away with it," he added.
While the suspected Chinese spy balloon and the objects destroyed over Alaska and Canada have prompted surprise in much of the U.S., it is worth noting there have been reports of aerial spying over North America in recent years.
But objects like the huge Chinese balloon may actually be designed to test the U.S., according to Chen. "China appears to be testing the aerial defenses of the U.S. and others, seeing what level and frequency of incursion can be detected, and observing what the reaction of States are," he said. "Is China doing this in preparation for a potential confrontation with the U.S., perhaps over Taiwan or in the South China Sea?
"Today, it may be seemingly innocuous wayward balloons that are hard to detect and intercept," Chen added. "But soon it may be dozens of them ('swarm'). When do such low-level threats to national security amount to such intensity and seriousness that we will consider our country under (what is legally called) 'armed attack'?"
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
February 18, 2023 11:12 ET (16:12 GMT)
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