Chinese spy balloon revelations raise stakes for US response

The discovery that a Chinese spy balloon shot down off the U.S. coast had the equipment to collect communications, and not just images, as it traveled across the country last week has upped the stakes around the incident.

U.S. lawmakers are demanding new action from the Biden administration after the Thursday revelations that the balloon possessed antennas to collect communications signals and solar panels to power its sensors.

Washington was also rattled by news earlier this week that the airship was part of a much larger operation run by the Chinese military to spy on more than 40 countries across five continents.

The incursion, which until last week was largely unknown to much of the American public, seems to mark a new era of espionage and counter-espionage activities between the U.S. and China, according to John Ciorciari, the director of the Weiser Diplomacy Center at the University of Michigan.

“This incident makes it likely the U.S. accelerates different kinds of counterintelligence initiatives and expands to areas like, who do we grant visas to? Who is allowed to study at universities?” Ciorciari told The Hill. “An acceleration of those kinds of policies, the Chinese government will probably mirror.”

The U.S. government isn’t wasting time in punching back at the breach. A State Department official on Thursday said the U.S. is exploring options to take action against the Chinese military and entities supporting the balloon spying operation. Washington will also seek to further expose the Chinese global surveillance campaign, the official said.

Congressional lawmakers also denounced Beijing, with the House later in the day unanimously passing a resolution condemning China’s use of the surveillance balloon over the United States, calling it a “brazen violation” of U.S. sovereignty.

The resolution also calls on the Biden administration to keep Congress abreast of any new information gleaned from the incident.

But lawmakers remain unsatisfied by the information to come out of the White House and Pentagon so far, as well as the reasoning for why the U.S. military didn’t move quicker to down the balloon before it drifted slowly across U.S. territory for days before being shot off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4.

Tensions were particularly high at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing with defense officials.

Alaskan Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), whose state’s airspace was the first to be breached by the Chinese balloon on Jan. 28, was visibly angry as she questioned the witnesses.

“As an Alaskan, I am so angry. I want to use other words but I’m not going to,” she said. “The fact of the matter is, Alaska is the first line of defense for America, right? If you’re going to have Russia coming at you, if you’re going to have China coming at you, we know exactly how they come. They come up and they go over Alaska.”

She later added: “Seems to me the clear message to China is ‘we’ve got free range in Alaska, because they’re going to let us cruise over that.’”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), meanwhile, said “it defies belief that there was not a single opportunity to safely shoot down this spy balloon prior to the coast of South Carolina.”

And the subcommittee chairman, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), whose state also was in the balloon’s flight path, demanded answers as to how the administration has responded to past instances of Chinese aerial spying, what the balloons were collecting, and if there are any plans to respond if such a thing happens again.

“Do we have a plan for when this happens again and what we’re going to do and when we’re going to do it?” Tester asked the witnesses, which included Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Hemispheric Affairs Melissa Dalton and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Jedidiah Royal.

“I don’t want a damn balloon going across the United States when we could potentially have taken it down over the Aleutian Islands,” he added. “I got a problem with a Chinese balloon flying over my state, much less the rest of the country.”

Royal assured Tester that the Defense Department has “some very good guesses” about what intel China was attempting to gather with the balloon, promising more details in the classified version of the hearing.

But Tester responded that while U.S. intelligence agencies may “think we know what they were going to collect, we don’t know. That scares the hell out of me.”

Asked repeatedly why the government didn’t immediately shoot down the balloon when it was detected over Alaska, the defense officials repeated past assertions that the debris field caused by such an operation, even in a remote area such as Alaska, was still too much of a risk to citizens on the ground.

Taking down the balloon over Alaska would have also made it significantly more difficult and dangerous to “salvage, understand and exploit the capabilities” of the devices on board given the cold, volatile and deep waters around the state, Dalton said.

Also concerning for intelligence officials and lawmakers is that four previous spy balloons flew over the U.S. initially undetected, according to the Pentagon — three during the Trump administration and another months ago during the Biden administration.

Tim Heath, a senior International defense researcher with Rand Corporation, said the incident should prompt the U.S. to develop better technology to detect future balloons.

“It’s possible that the U.S. military really didn’t think the Chinese would have the gall to float one right over our own country,” he said. “I can understand why they didn’t detect them in the past.”

Heath said current radar systems focus on missiles and aircraft coming into U.S. airspace.

“In order to detect [balloons] with radar, you need to have some kind of new technology that can pick up very low observable things in the sky like balloons,” Heath continued.

In a heightened era of U.S.-China tensions, it’s possible that other technologies and Chinese tactics will fall under more scrutiny.

Areas of concern include social media app TikTok, which is owned by a Chinese company and is already being banned on government devices in Republican-led states, along with Chinese companies buying up land near U.S. military bases and Beijing’s deployment of covert agents at American universities .

Ciorciari, of the University of Michigan, said espionage is common among nations — but the Chinese spy balloon placed the image of such spying “in the minds of average American citizens.”

Because of this, he predicted, there will be “more pressure to limit espionage” by the U.S. government.

“The threat that I see is not so much the intelligence collection capabilities of the balloons,” he said, but “where this set of episodes fit in the broader relationship.”

And there’s still much to learn about the balloon shot down over the weekend.

The Navy, helped by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is still attempting to collect balloon debris from the Atlantic Ocean to glean information on the Chinese technology.

So far, dive teams have only pulled the canopy, some wiring and a small amount of electronics from the water, FBI officials said in a briefing Thursday. The rest is at the “ocean bottom,” including the majority of the balloon’s payload, with recovery efforts expected to take a while due to weather.

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