Flying spy in the sky: All about the Chinese surveillance balloon


Chase Doak / AFP - Getty Images

February 5, US fighter jets shot down the circling Chinese spy balloon that took lawmakers and the American public to a fearful frenzy surrounding domestic security. US and China relations now become increasingly shaky as the highly anticipated meeting with Chinese officials and US Secretary of State Antony Bliken became abruptly postponed. Leading up to the days before shooting it down, Biden and his defense officials met to strategically and safely take the balloon down. This response faces backlash, particularly from Republicans; China condemns the US for the decision to shoot the balloon down.

Rose Ordonio, Reporter

Saturday, February 4, the US military shot down the Chinese suspected spy balloon as it flew over the US territorial waters on the East Coast. This interference comes after three extensive days of drama and suspicion around American and Chinese relations—particularly feelings of uncertainty from the American public. The detection led US Secretary of State Anothony Blinken to abruptly postpone his anticipated visit to China scheduled that Friday, citing the incident as the main factor in this decision. 

China’s decision to fly a surveillance balloon over the continental US is both unacceptable and irresponsible — that’s what this is about, it created conditions that undermined the very purpose of the trip,” Blinken said 

US defense officials made the news of the balloon to the public Thursday, February 2 with the Pentagon reporting continuously tracking it across the United States after spotting it in Montana. Home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana remains one of the few military bases that notoriously houses nuclear missiles. Before reports became public, the balloon first entered US airspace over Alaska Saturday, January 28, putting it under the military’s close radar with it becoming tracked over the next several days. The Department of Defense (DoD) alerted President Joe Biden of the balloon Tuesday, January 31, in which he and military officials discussed options to shoot down the flying object. The Pentagon recommended not to shoot it down as it floated over Montana out of fear of destroying it over land, as falling debris would endanger civilians below but continued to monitor it. Biden discussed options to recover as many materials from the balloon in order to analyze its capabilities thoroughly.

This incident does not only apply to just the United States but occurred beyond its borders. Shortly after reporting the balloon flying over the United States, The Pentagon  then reported a Chinese surveillance balloon observed in Latin America. They confirmed the surveillance balloon after news outlets in Costa Rica reported a comparable flying object in the sky. 

Officials hope to discover additional pieces of information found in the debris. The Pentagon stated that the balloon contains surveillance equipment and its course showed it hovering around the Montana military base. The Pentagon also expressed on Friday that the balloon currently does not hold a military or physical threat. The defense department further added that immediate military action took place to prevent the collection of sensitive information from the balloon. 

Republican members of congress express criticism citing a lack of action from Biden. Before the shooting down of the balloon, republicans, including former president Donald Trump called on the Biden Administration to shoot it down immediately after the news became public and condemned the administration for not doing it sooner. They also conveyed that Biden’s inaction illustrated the lack of US policies to deter China. Biden responded to reporters he ordered for it to be shot down after crossing into Montana but followed Pentagon’s recommendations to await following through safely. 

What began as a spy balloon has become a trial balloon testing President Biden’s strength and resolve and unfortunately, the president failed that test and that’s dangerous for the American people,” Republican senator Tom Cotton said.

The Biden administration continues to defend his decisions with Pete Buttigieg, President Joe Biden’s transportation chief, referring to the act as ‘done in a very effective way.  A senior defense official reported that balloons similar to the one shot down flew over the US three times during the Trump administration, a revelation that Trump denied. This issue emerges mere days before Biden’s first state of the union before a new Republican-controlled House. He faces immense pressure over his response to the balloon which puts a hamper on his upcoming speech. 

This spectacle puts an immense strain on US-China relations. China’s response came the Friday before the shootdown, saying the balloon acted as a ‘meteorological device that strayed off course’. The response cited the response as an accident. US officials rebutted as both balloons found in the US and in Latin America contained surveillance materials not usually used in meteorological activities or civilian research. After the US shot down the balloon, Chinese officials compared the US’ response to an overreaction that violated international practice and stated they reserved the right to take action in return. 

I always feel when something happens in the United States, we are very reactive instead of proactive so I don’t know what kind of security breaches happened or if we could have been a little bit quicker to figure out what it was and follow up. But that’s the problem with the United States: we have to wait until something happens before we intervene. I think the United States always has a very, very bad job of being proactive instead of reactive,” AP Psychology teacher Willam Hargis said.