US response to Chinese ‘spy balloon’

In recent years, several such Chinese balloons crossed into US airspace, however, they never remained for as long as this time. Such incidents are detrimental to the volatile Sino-US relations and should be abstained from to avoid any escalation.


On February 04, 2023, the US military shot down a Chinese airship purportedly deployed for reconnaissance off the Carolina coast. Before being down, the Chinese airship, or as many have been calling the Chinese spy balloon, traversed sensitive military installations across the United States. China posits that the balloon was a civilian aircraft and that its flyover over the US was accidental. China criticized the United States’ and termed its action as “an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice”, saying that China reserved the right to “take further actions”.

Spy balloons are unmanned, helium-filled balloons that carry various sensors, cameras, and other surveillance equipment, used for reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering. They are often used in areas where it is difficult or dangerous to operate manned aircraft or ground vehicles. Spy balloons can be used for both tactical and strategic intelligence purposes, including battlefield reconnaissance, border surveillance, and counter-terrorism operations. The use of spy balloons for military purposes has a long history, dating back to the American Civil War when both the Union and Confederate forces used hot air balloons for reconnaissance. Since then, balloons have been used by many armies for various intelligence purposes, and with the advancement of technology, the role of spy balloons in the military has evolved.

Read more: Ukraine accuses Russia of using spy balloons

According to US defense and military officials, the aircraft entered the US airspace over the Aleutian Islands on January 28 and roamed in the airspace of the US and Northwest of Canada for a week before it was finally shot down. During its flight, the US military was able to collect intelligence on the aircraft analyzing its movement and its capabilities of surveillance. According to US officials, the US military had concluded that the balloon was incapable of giving the Chinese any significant intelligence except for what could already be observed through the satellites. The orders for shooting down the Chinese airship were issued by President Joe Biden, who was briefed about it on January 31. President Biden wanted the aircraft down on February 01, however, he was advised against immediate action and to wait till the aircraft was over the ocean so to avoid unnecessary risk to the civilian population. The aircraft was finally shot down by an F-22 fighter of the US Air Force while it was about 6 nautical miles off the coast near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, according to senior defense officials. Once the mission was successful, President Biden congratulated the aviators who took down the aircraft. The debris of the destroyed aircraft landed about 47 feet deep in the Atlantic Ocean form where it was recovered with the help of several ships.


Republican’s criticized the White House for allowing the aircraft to travel across the continent before shooting it down. According to Republican Senators, allowing unhampered movement of the spy aircraft violating the US airspace for days before shooting it down “is a disastrous projection of weakness by the White House”.

The incident provoked the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone his visit to China scheduled for February 05 and 06 during which he was to meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang. According to Antony Blinken sending the balloon over the U.S. was “an irresponsible act and that (China’s) decision to take this action on the eve of my visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have”.

China on the other hand, denied claims of spying, positing that the balloon was merely a weather research airship that had lost its course. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that “China will resolutely uphold the relevant company’s legitimate rights and interests, and at the same time reserving the right to take further actions in response.” The statement was seconded by China’s Ministry of Defence.


Shortly after, the sighting of the Chinese ‘spy balloon’ over the US airspace, another ‘Chinese spy balloon’ was spotted over Latin America. The balloon was detected by Colombia’s Air Force in the country’s airspace at an altitude of 55,000 feet. Colombia’s Air Force followed it in its airspace, however, avoid engagement as it did not threaten Colombia’s national security. According to US officials, spying balloons are a part of Chinese information gathering and reconnaissance program and this is not the first time that a Chinese aircraft violated US airspace. In recent years, several such Chinese balloons crossed into US airspace, however, they never remained for as long as this time. Such incidents are detrimental to the volatile Sino-US relations and should be abstained from to avoid any escalation.

Read more: Chinese spy balloon over US ends hopes to ease tensions

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