Making Sense of the US–China Balloon Row


Courtesy IDSA

The alleged spy balloon over the US airspace could be an attempt by China to make a statement about its growing capabilities

Niranjan Chandrashekhar Oak

The shooting down of the alleged Chinese spy balloon over the United States (US) airspace has exacerbated already strained relations between Washington and Beijing. The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the incident an “unacceptable violation of US sovereignty and international law” and underscored that such an “act must never again occur” during the meeting with the Chinese State Councilor and Director of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Foreign Affairs Office Wang Yi on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference on 18 February 2023. Earlier, Blinken cancelled a scheduled visit to Beijing in February 2023 in view of the balloon controversy.

Yi termed the US act of downing the balloon “an abuse of the use of force and violation of customary international practice and the International Civil Aviation Covenant”. China has maintained that the balloon had strayed into the US airspace due to Force Majeure, and insisted that Beijing strictly follows international law and respects all countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity. Rather, China has made counter-charges against the US for violating Chinese airspace “over ten times without authorization from China” with the help of high-altitude balloons.

Although there has been a spate of incidents—at least four, so far—involving unknown aerial objects being shot over the US–Canadian airspace in the past fortnight, the balloon that was shot down on 4 February 2023 stands out. One, because the identity of the balloon has been ascertained, and China has owned up to the same. China is calling it a civilian airship used for meteorological research purposes. Two, the balloon was floating over Billings in the US state of Montana, home to the Malmstrom Air Force base and several sensitive nuclear missile sites. Three, the balloon size was huge compared to the other three objects, and the balloon had the capability to man oeuvre.

Decluttering the Mystery

The following things are crystal clear when analyzing the statements from the US and China. First, China has exploited the discrepancy in international law vis-à-vis airspace sovereignty. The US claimed that the Chinese balloon violated its airspace. According to the Convention on International Civil Aviation, ‘every state has complete and exclusive sovereignty over the airspace above its territory’. However, there is no mention of the upper limit of air sovereignty. What is beyond the grey area is that the sovereignty claim of the country is not applicable in outer space. Nevertheless, Beijing’s use of the term Force Majeure—an inability to fulfil the contract—establishes that China had accepted deviation from international law.

Second, the recovered payload from the balloon strongly suggests that it was more than just a civilian meteorological research airship. The antennas in the balloon indicate that it was equipped for collecting intelligence signals. However, the US did not elaborate on what data the balloon could have relayed back to Beijing. Further, the Chinese balloon was fitted with solar panels, which could have aided the propulsion system. Thus, the Chinese claim that the balloon was an innocent civilian airship falls flat.

China has exploited the discrepancy in international law vis-à-vis airspace sovereignty (File photo)

Third, the timing of the incident is interesting because it happened very close to Secretary Blinken’s visit to China, which could have been the first visit by an US Secretary of State since 2018. This is in line with China’s habit of testing the opponent’s resolve before or during high-level meetings. India is no stranger to this pattern. In 2014, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers breached the territorial integrity of India in the Chumar sector of the Union Territory of Ladakh while President Xi Jinping was on an official visit to India. Similarly, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang, Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao’s visits to India in 2013, 2010 and 2006 respectively, were preceded by border provocations.

Thus, the alleged spy balloon over the US airspace could be an attempt by China to make a statement about its growing capabilities. However, it can be discerned that China had not considered the possibility of exposing its alleged surveillance programme and the subsequent cancellation of Blinken’s visit. The incident only reaffirmed Washington’s resolve to simultaneously tackle the Chinese challenge at the diplomatic and military levels.

Fourth, the lack of transparency on the Chinese part vis-à-vis the actors involved in the balloon episode raises more questions rather than giving answers. The US was quick to sanction six Chinese aerospace firms associated with the alleged spy balloon programme. The US justified the move by alleging a threat to national security. The Biden administration also alleged that the manufacturer of the balloon had a close relationship with the Chinese military, and that surveillance balloons were operated out of Hainan, the southernmost province of China.

China opposed the sanctions calling them “illegal” and “unilateral”.   Beijing claimed the US allegations were part of the broader information warfare waged by Washington. However, the Chinese government had no answer to the question about the entity the balloon belonged to. It evaded questions about the flight path or the destination of the balloon. Thus, the opacity about the entire operation—whether the balloon was operated by a private entity or a government entity, what kind of data it was collecting—gives credence to the US operation to down the balloon. Moreover, Beijing has enacted domestic laws to systematically access private-sector data, which diminishes the difference between the government and private entities being involved in the balloon saga.

Fifth, both the US and China have attempted to expand the scope of the allegations to involve more countries in the controversy, thus taking the incident beyond the bilateral ambit. The US claimed that China’s spy balloon programme was spread across five continents and over 40 countries were the victim of Chinese surveillance activities. The victims consisted of the close allies and partners of the US, including those from the Indo-Pacific region. According to the reports, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman briefed around 150 diplomats sharing information about China’s alleged surveillance balloon programme.

Similarly, China took on the US, alleging that since May 2022, the US had flown multiple high-altitude balloons circling over the globe. Going further, Beijing reminded the world how the US National Security Agency had spied on leaders of US allies and partners. It claimed that Pentagon used high-altitude balloons “to track hypersonic strategic cruise missiles being developed by China and Russia”. Thus, in a broader contest for dominance of the present world order, both countries are trying to score points by getting as many countries on their side as possible.

Lessons for India

Looking at the US–China balloon row, New Delhi must draw its lessons. The incident shows that the significance of age-old methods like balloon surveillance has not been reduced in the era of high-tech satellites and drones. Balloons have advantages over satellites. They can hover over a place for a longer time and get clearer images due to their proximity to the ground. Thus, New Delhi should learn from the US shortcomings and guard its airspace—especially the near space between 20 km and 100 km—minutely.

Secondly, while the row is not over, allegations are flying freely from both sides about surveillance programmes being run by each other over friends and enemies alike. Thus, India should be extremely conservative while allowing foreign entry into critical infrastructure. In this regard, New Delhi has already decided to become atmanirbhar, and the country should redouble efforts in that direction.

Finally, the balloon episode has highlighted that the US-led world order is being challenged by an emerging China. On the one hand, Beijing is trying to confine India to the South Asian strategic box by periodically resurrecting border issues and by helping its all-weather ally Pakistan. On the other hand, for the past 30 years, the US-led order in the Indo-Pacific has benefitted India strategically. Thus, going ahead, India should continue to make pragmatic choices in the pursuit of its national interests.

Niranjan Chandrashekhar Oak is a Research Analyst at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.

This article first appeared in the Comments section of the website ( of Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, New Delhi on February 22, 2023

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