• Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

The new face of international espionage? Balloons.

ByJoe Frater

Feb 16, 2023
Chinese Surveillance balloon

It’s just a balloon. Nothing to worry about. Just your regular, normal, giant spy balloon. Please don’t shoot at it.

One of the more puzzling sources of friction in foreign affairs over the past week was the unannounced appearance of a vast white balloon above the United States. Bristling with technology and drifting more than 24 kilometres above sea level, this intrusion into US airspace naturally raised some high-clearance eyebrows. Fingers were immediately pointed towards China, given the trajectory of the balloon.

The Chinese government insisted, initially, that this was nothing more than a piece of meteorological equipment swept astray by unforeseen winds. This claim was quickly dismissed by anyone with any technical knowledge. Alexandra Anderson-Frey, a professor of atmospheric science, told Time that this balloon was carrying “a lot more equipment” than the “little box” one would expect to see on a weather balloon.

Even without expert opinion, it might be sensible to dismiss the Chinese promises at face value. In foreign policy terms, a Chinese promise is about as good as a Russian one. 

It is important to admire the humour of the situation. The most powerful military in the world thwarted by a big balloon. A public announcement imploring American citizens not to fire their guns at the sky. Everything about this debacle feels surreal. Alongside all the grim realism crowding headlines recently, it is a welcome relief to come across something so absurd.

The Chinese have loudly condemned the decision to shoot down the craft, but it seems natural to question how this interaction might have unfolded if the roles were reversed. The Communist government are notorious for its secrecy, with a vicious tendency towards censorship. How would they have reacted to a giant surveillance balloon? Is their condemnation of the US military response justified?

If a photoshopped image of Xi Jinping as Winnie the Pooh is enough to spark a thorough state response, one would imagine that a massive spy balloon might ruffle some feathers. The vitriol from the insular People’s Republic feels hypocritical at best and intentionally inflammatory at worst.

There are murmurs, also, of other balloons, some dating back to the Trump administration. Until now, this information was buried: an uncomfortable reminder of how little we know. Countless clandestine manoeuvres take place behind closed doors. Many of which may never be declassified. The public remains in the dark.

Even more puzzling is the fact that this balloon is insignificant in terms of surveillance: both the US and China have far more powerful satellite imagery. There is no strategic or logistical advantage to floating tons of metal over a rival state. A balloon in this age serves no real purpose. So, what are they trying to achieve? Hopefully, a few answers can be pulled from the wreckage.

Image Credit: “Kinesiska ballongincidenten 2023 -Chinese surveillance balloon over Billings in USA” by Chase Doak is licensed under CC BY 4.0.