Balloon episode shows China doesn’t respect international law


The balloon of inflated Chinese audacity has finally collapsed. The surveillance balloon that Beijing had floated to collect sensitive data from the United States has been shot down by the U.S. Air Force. In a further loss of face for Beijing, Washington has refused to hand over to China the debris of the balloon that has been shot down; in fact, not only loss of face but also alarm, as the debris contain the tell-tale signs of the surveillance equipment that the Chinese balloon had been carrying.

Under the order of U.S. President Joe Biden, the American military downed on February 5, 2023, over the Atlantic Ocean the Chinese spy balloon that the U.S. Government had been tracking for a few days over the American skies, and recovered from the ocean all the equipment on board the balloon from its debris. A fighter aircraft from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia fired a single missile into the balloon, causing it to crash into the territorial air space of America. “When I was briefed on the balloon, I ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down as soon as possible,” Biden told reporters.

The balloon, of the size of three buses, was flying over American installations, but the U.S. experts took counter measures to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information. In the context of the balloon episode, the subsequent claim of spokesperson of Foreign Ministry of China Mao Ning that “China is a responsible country, always abiding by international law and has no intention of violating the territory or airspace of any sovereign country” sounds hollow.

A February 9 report of the New York Times said the balloon was capable of collecting communication signals. The U.S. State Department said in a written announcement that the equipment of the balloon “were clearly for intelligence surveillance and inconsistent with the equipment on board weather balloons.” It had multiple antennae in an array “likely capable of collecting and geo-locating communications.”

U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on February 7 that the balloon was not merely drifting but had propellers and steering to give it a measure of control, to speed up, to slow down, and to turn. It had a rudder too. The detection of the balloon, according to another NYT report on February 5, came close on the heels of a classified report to the U.S. Congress that outlined incidents of American adversaries potentially using advanced technology to spy on America.

There were two incidents of aerial surveillance with unknown cutting-edge technology. ABC News has quoted a senior American military official saying China has a fleet of such types of surveillance balloons, including one that was spotted flying over Venezuela and Columbia the same week one balloon was found flying over the American skies. “These balloons are all part of a fleet of balloons developed to conduct surveillance operations, which have also violated the sovereignty of other countries.

These kinds of activities are often undertaken at the direction of the Chinese army. Over the past several years, Chinese balloons have been spotted over countries across five continents, including East Asia, South Asia and Europe. The balloon that the U.S. military finally shot down entered Alaska on January 28, then entered into Canadian airspace on January 30 and re-entered the U.S. airspace over Northern Idaho on January 31. On the second balloon that floated over Central and South America, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said: “China has no explanation for why they violated the airspace of Central and South American countries. The programme of the Peoples Republic of China will only continue to be exposed, making it harder for the PRC to use this programme.”

The typical attempt by Chinese leaders to bully the USA by threatening repercussions has failed in this instance. U.S. President Joe Biden made it clear on February 8 that America “will act”to protect if Beijing threatened its sovereignty. “I am committed to work with China where it can advance American interests and benefit the world. But make no mistake, as we made clear last week; if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did.”Pointing out that among all the countries in the world only China was capable of acting in such a high-handed manner, Joe Biden said; “China committed such a brazen act of floating balloons across continental America because they are the Chinese government.”

The U.S. administration has taken steps to alert its allies against such high-handed behaviour of China like sending surveillance balloons over the territorial airspace of other countries. White House spokesperson Jean-Pierre has said: “We will also look at broader efforts to expose and address the larger surveillance activities of the PRC that pose a threat to our national security and to our allies and partners as well.”

Hinting that such a brazen act as eavesdropping on sensitive information of other countries by means of surveillance balloons was typical of autocratic regimes, the U.S. President said in his State of the Union Address before a joint sitting of the U.S. Congress: “Let us be clear, winning the competition with China should unite all of us. We face serious challenges across the world. But in the past two years democracies have become stronger, not weaker.” Two years into his administration, autocracies had grown weaker, not stronger; Joe Biden emphasized.

Following the detection and destruction of the Chinese surveillance balloon, the USA has intensified diplomatic efforts with its friends and allies, in particular the Quadrilateral Alliance partners Australia, Japan and India, and the NATO members, to expose the Chinese surveillance programme through high altitude floating balloons, according to news agency reports from Washington. “We were able to minimize the intelligence collection value of this particular system because we identified it early on and we took prudent steps, including steps on the ground that would minimize its ability to provide valuable intelligence back to the PRC. Not every country is going to be in a position to do that, ” US State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters on February 10.

“So we want to provide countries with information that they may need to help defend themselves against this type of programme, similar types of programmes going forward.”  He said this was a programme that had spanned five continents, 40 countries and assets for this programme had been deployed by China around the globe.

China, Ned Price said, “has a lot of explaining to do. They have a lot of questions from countries around the world. They have decided to leverage this programme against dozens of countries around the world. We have, as part of our diplomatic blocking and tackling, sought to have a convergence of views regarding the challenges presented by PRC;” in Europe, the Indo-Pacific, countries in the western hemisphere and countries in Africa.

Indian American Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, a ranking member of the new China Select Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, has warned that the flight of the Chinese spy balloon is a reminder of the threat posed by the ruling Communist Party of China to the national sovereignty of America and many of the neighbours of China, including Taiwan. “We know there are military, technological and national security threats. The balloon reminds us that these threats exist, that the Chinese Communist Party is aggressive and that they are committing surveillance and violations of our national sovereignty, not to mention violations of national sovereignty of so many other neighbours, including Taiwan and others.”

The USA has predictably ruled out returning to China the debris of the surveillance balloon. “I know of no such intention or plans to return it,” John Kirby has been quoted as saying. On the contrary, as a punitive measure against the Chinese misadventure, Washington on February 11 blacklisted six Chinese entities that were linked to the aerospace programme of Beijing. The economic restrictions imposed would make it more difficult for five companies and one research institute to obtain American technology exports.

The U.S. Bureau of Industry and Security said in a statement the six entities were being targeted for their support to Chinese military modernization efforts, specifically the aerospace programme of the People’s Liberation Army, including airships and balloons. “The PLA is using high altitude balloons for intelligence and reconnaissance activities,” the statement said.

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