Chinese Spy Balloons: The fuzzy theories

There is much about the Chinese spy balloon story that is extremely obscure.

On the one hand, you could read events as a brazen and aggressive act of power intent on maintaining a competitive advantage.

But on the other hand, there are true signs that China committed to improving relations with the US, or at least prevent further deterioration. The official response from the foreign ministry was also more direct and apologetic than it sometimes appears.

This incident – and especially its timing, just days before the secretary of state of the United States, Antony Blinken it was to touch down in Beijing – there seems to be a contradiction in China’s own efforts and work.

There can be no doubt that a great diplomatic effort will be made on both sides to bring this visit to fruition. President Xi Jinping himself acknowledged at the G20 summit last year that China and the US must do more to ensure that competition between them does not lead to conflict.

Suggestions that Mr. Blinken was scheduled to meet with Mr. Xi himself, a level of access not routinely granted, were a major sign that China was committed to this process. Jeopardizing the visit at the last minute will have done nothing to help an already distrustful relationship.

So why? What did China achieve more than the diplomatic costs?

Some experts have weighed in on this balloon technology, arguing that the gains for China in terms of the information gathered are likely to be quite limited.

Most of the supposed targets are probably already being met by spy satellites.

Although these types of balloons are able to stay longer over certain areas, experts say that the wind currents that these balloons rely on for steering are unreliable at this time of year and so it is unlikely that he could go directly above his intended. target.

Others have also suggested that the Chinese will almost certainly know that such a balloon would be found, such is the comprehensive nature of the United States’ monitoring of its airspace.

Read more:
China’s ‘spy balloons’ explained

If intel resource is limited, what was the aim?

It may be the result of a failed experiment or some sort of failure in its self-terminating system.

Perhaps it was indeed an accident that he ended up where he was.

Or maybe it was a more conscious attempt to provoke and intimidate, to embarrass the US – perhaps with how easily its airspace was invaded. Some in Congress have speculated whether it was launched to test America’s response capability or to send a message about China’s surveillance technology being equal to that of its rival.

What is certain is that, while this incident is more visible and high-profile, surveillance and espionage is a serious and widespread reality.

FBI Director Christopher Wray described China as a “game-changing challenge”. Back in 2020, he said the biggest long-term threat to US intelligence and intellectual property was “the counter-intelligence and economic espionage threat from China”.

Last October, the FBI estimated that it was opening a new Chinese counterintelligence operation every 12 hours.

Under Mr. Xi, China’s actions and words on the international stage have become more aggressive and unapologetic. In this context, it is also possible that China is less invested in the process of repairing relations than it seemed.

It’s worth remembering that America also engages in its fair share of surveillance – both sides are well known to have trained spy satellites.

All of the initial efforts to keep the animosity between the two at bay may not be lost. US officials insist that the lines of communication remain open and that Mr Blinken’s visit has only been postponed and not cancelled.

But this relationship was already a very complex balancing act, even before this incident was considered to have made any kind of progress, the chances are now more remote.

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