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Explained: The Chinese 'Spy Balloon' Over USA, What Are The Concerns, And How Has The USA Responded?

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Explained: The Chinese 'Spy Balloon' Over USA, What Are The Concerns, And How Has The USA Responded?

The Chinese spy balloon over the United States has raised US-China tensions. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it's 'unacceptable as well as irresponsible'. He postponed a planned visit to China in response to the balloon's incursion.

Chinese spy balloon spotted over western US
Chinese spy balloon spotted over western US AP

Two days after a Chinese spy balloon was tracked flying over the United States, the US military on Friday found another Chinese balloon over Latin America.

The sightings of the two Chinese spy balloons, one of whom is in US skies at the moment, has raised US-China tensions. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed a visit to China that was supposed to start on Friday night. 

China has claimed that the balloon in the US skies is a weather balloon that has deviated from its path, but US officials have rejected the explanation and have said it's a spy balloon. 

Here we explain what are these spy balloons, what are their purposes, how the episode has escalated US-China tensions, and what's happened over them so far.

What are the spy balloons?

The Chinese spy balloon was spotted over the US state of Montana on Wednesday. Montana hosts a US nuclear missile base. 

The balloon is the size of three buses and appears like a white orb when seen from Earth. It's flying in the West-to-East direction. 

The BBC reported, "The object flew over Alaska's Aleutian Islands and through Canada before appearing over the city of Billings in Montana on Wednesday, according to officials."

Though the Chinese government has apologised over the incident and has said it's a weather-research balloon that has gone astray as it has limited steering capacity, the US Department of Defence (DoD) has said it's a spy balloon that can very well change its course.

The DoD has said the balloon is carrying sensors and surveillance equipment. It has added it's maneuverable and has shown it can change course. It has loitered over sensitive areas of Montana where nuclear warheads are stored, prompting the military to take actions to prevent it from collecting intelligence.

The Chinese spy balloon is moving east over America at an altitude of about 60,000 feet (18,600 meters). The US government has said it was being used for surveillance and intelligence collection, but officials have provided few details.

President Joe Biden was briefed about the balloon on Friday and was advised to not shoot it down. Biden also ordered to not shoot down the balloon as the falling debris could affect civilian and military settlements on ground and cause casualties and damange to private and public property. 

The Biden administration has maintained there is no current civilian or military threat from the balloon. Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said on Thursday evening that the balloon was not a military or physical threat - an acknowledgement that it was not carrying weapons. He also said that "once the balloon was detected, the US government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information".

A second spy balloon has been spotted over Latin America but the US government has not provided its exact location.

“We are seeing reports of a balloon transiting Latin America. We now assess it as another Chinese surveillance balloon. We have no further information to provide at this time,” Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said on Friday.

Spy balloon to test US air defence, find weak spots: Expert

Even if it's not armed, the balloon poses a risk to the United States, says retired Army General John Ferrari, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. 

Ferrari said the flight itself can be used to test America's ability to detect incoming threats and to find holes in the country's air defense warning system. It may also allow the Chinese to sense electromagnetic emissions that higher-altitude satellites can't detect, such as low-power radio frequencies that could help them understand how different US weapons systems communicate.

Ferrari also said the Chinese may have sent the balloon "to show us that they can do it, and maybe next time it could have a weapon. So now we have to spend money and time on it" developing defenses.

Despite modern equipment like drones, spy balloons do have some relevance, notes Financial Times. This helps explain why China might have deployed these balloongs.

The FT notes, "The Pentagon said the balloon did not provide China with capabilities that went beyond its spy satellites, but military and intelligence analysts said that the slow speed and high altitude of balloons — they usually operate at around 80,000ft, far higher than commercial airliners — does allow them to record over a larger area than satellites in orbit and pick up more detail.

"They are also harder to spot than metal drones or aircraft using traditional anti-surveillance equipment such as radar, while they can remain in the air for weeks, providing a lengthy assessment of activity on the ground."

Fox News host Jesse Watters also said that the violation of US airspace could work as a test-run for a future offensive. He also compared it with a historic Japanese air raid in the United States.

He said, "America's spy balloons can carry suicide drones and deploy them to take out targets on the ground like a floating hive with killer bees. So, how do we know what the Chinese have in their balloon? During World War II, the Japanese used balloons to drop bombs on us. They killed six Americans in Oregon, the only deaths in the continental United States during the war. This could be a test run for the Chinese."

Watters also expressed the possibility of the balloon having the potential of being used as a bio-weapon.

He said, "If they know Joe freezes at the first sight of a balloon, the next balloon might be filled with another virus. Pop, droplets all over, we're all on ventilators again. Now, how do we know the next balloon isn't loaded up with bioweapons? Just a little seepage over Nebraska, there goes the heartland."

The Chinese spy balloon entered USA from Canada: Report

As noted earlier in the article, the Chinese spy balloon entered the United States earlier this week. Prior to that, it was flying above Canada where the government was monitoring it, according to CTV News.

The CTV News reported, "Canadian officials have not publicly stated whether the massive high-altitude balloon entered Canadian airspace. But sources told CTV News it had passed over the Canadian Arctic, Alberta and Saskatchewan before it was spotted over Montana on Thursday, as it flew over a nuclear launch site. Sources told CTV News it was tracked the entire time it was in Canadian airspace."

Though Biden ordered the balloon to not be shot down, figher planes were deployed in case such an order had to be issued.

After the US and Canadian governments formally commented on the Chinese spy balloon, the Chinese government summoned the Chinese ambassador.

CBC News reported, "Officials at Global Affairs Canada have summoned China's Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu for a meeting in response to a high-altitude surveillance balloon detected in North American airspace.

"Global Affairs Canada would not say when this meeting will take place or what exactly will be discussed. In a media statement, a spokesperson said the department "will continue to vigorously express [its] position to Chinese officials through multiple channels."

Spy balloon undermines visit's purpose: Antony Blinken

Following the discovery of the Chinese spy balloons, US Secretary of State postponed his planned visit to China. 

Speaking after the postponement of the visit, Blinken said the Chinese actions regarding the spy balloons undermined the purpose of the visit. 

Blinken further said that lines of communication with the Chinese government are open but visit is no longer the first priority. He said the first priority is to get the spy assets out of the US airspace.

He said, "In our judgment, it created conditions that undermined the very purpose of the trip, including ongoing efforts, as I said, to build a floor under the relationship as well as to address a very broad range of issues that are important to Americans, to Chinese, to the entire world." 

Blinken also called the deployment of Chinese spy balloon an "unacceptable as well as irresponsible action". 

He said, "That's what this is about. It's a violation of our sovereignty, it's a violation of international law. And it was very important that we of course take the actions we did to protect any sensitive information, to protect our people, and to make clear to China that again this is an unacceptable as well as irresponsible action."

The US domestic response to Chinese spy balloon

While the domestic political response has largely been partisan, there has been some strong reactions from Democrat leaders. 

Montana's Democratic Senator Jon Tester asked the Biden administration for answers. He also said he will summon officials to explain the situation. 

Politico noted that Tester sits on the powerful Senate committee that controls the US Defence Department's budget.

He said, "I'm demanding answers from the Biden Administration. I will be pulling people before my committee to get real answers on how this happened, and how we can prevent it from ever happening again."

Politico further reported, "Tester wasn't alone among Democrats condemning the incursion. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) joined Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) in warning the incident shows Beijing poses risks on the homefront. The two lead a select panel investigating threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party."

Krishnamoorthi and Gallagher said, "The Chinese Communist Party should not have on-demand access to American airspace...Indeed, this incident demonstrates that the CCP threat is not confined to distant shores — it is here at home and we must act to counter this threat."

The Republicans have also criticised the Biden administration for not shooting down the balloon. 

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene said, "Biden should shoot down the Chinese spy balloon immediately. President Trump would never have tolerated this. President Trump would never have tolerated many things happening to America."

Taylor is among the most hardliner Republicans and a strong supporter of Trump. She is also reportedly in contest to be his running mate in 2024 election.

Sen. Chuck Grassley said, "If you are puzzled by Biden administraion's passive reaction to Chinese spy balloon hovering over our military bases that makes two of us. Glad Secretary Blinken postponed his trip but are we really going to just let it sail all the way across US? Need strong response to this provocation." 

Yahoo News noted that the Chinese spy balloon episodes provides a ripe opportunity in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election.

"With less than two years until the 2024 presidential election, the political ramifications of virtually everything receive greater scrutiny. For those looking to replace Biden in the White House, the Chinese balloon story was a gift from above," noted Yahoo's David Knowles.

(With AP inputs)

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