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US China Relations – The Mysterious Balloon

Michael Antonorsi


April 1, 2023

US/China relations have strained considerably since the beginning of February. On the 2nd of February, the US Defence Department said it was monitoring a balloon flying over the continental US. The disclosure came after photographers posted photos of the aircraft. The balloon had been over Montana, a state with sensitive military personnel, on February 1st. The Chinese government admitted it was their balloon, but that it was a “civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological”, on February 3rd. 

Beijing “regretted the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure”. High altitude civilian balloons sometimes do stray from their intended flight path due to lack of propulsion systems. Under such a scenario it is customary to notify the relevant authorities. China did not notify any US authorities of the balloon’s presence. 

Following the disclosure of the balloon’s location and origin, senators in the US questioned why it was allowed to fly over the US for so long and demanded it be shot down immediately. The Pentagon explained that downing the aircraft posed risks to civilians on the ground and that its intelligence capabilities were no greater than other methods such as low-orbit satellites. The 

On February 4th US Secretary of State Antony Blinken cancelled his preplanned trip to China. Later the same day the US Airforce shot down the balloon off the coast of South Carolina. The debris landed inside US territorial waters where recovery operations began. Beijing has since accused Washington of violating international law by shooting down a distressed civilian aircraft.

During a senate hearing on February 9th Assistant Secretary of Defence Melissa Dalton said the balloon was “200 feet tall with a jetliner size payload”. According to US government officials the balloon was equipped “clearly for intelligence surveillance” including “multiple antennas” that were “likely capable of collecting and geo-locating communications”. Video footage of the balloon showed small motors and propellers that allowed China to actively control the flight path over specific locations. The flight path and successive statements from Beijing confirm that the balloon had some navigation control. The statements from Beijing came after a second, similar, balloon was spotted over Columbia.

The balloon was allowed to traverse over Alaska and Canada into the continental US for eight days before being shot down over the ocean as it no longer posed a risk to civilians on the ground. It still posed risks to civilian aviation. The US has since shot down three other balloon like objects over the USA and Canada. There has been no confirmation of the ‘owners’ of these three other aircraft.  




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