A Chinese spy balloon shortly before it was shot down over Surfside Beach, South Carolina, on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023.

A Chinese spy balloon shortly before it was shot down over Surfside Beach, South Carolina, on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023. (Joe Granita/Zuma Press)

(Tribune News Service) — The high-profile spectacle of an alleged Chinese surveillance balloon flying over the continental U.S. is shining a spotlight on the prevalence of similar incidents around the world, from Taipei to Latin America.

While the U.S. is believed to use such devices, officials have said the balloon shot down off the South Carolina coast this weekend is part of a broader global surveillance program rolled out by Beijing. It highlights the escalating intelligence battle between the U.S. and China, utilizing everything from geostationary satellites and signals intercepts to old-fashioned spy craft. Now balloons have suddenly been thrust back to the fore as a key part of that arsenal.

Officials in Beijing conceded that the balloon that drifted across the U.S. mainland last week came from China, but they rejected the Pentagon’s claim that it was intended for spying, instead suggesting it was a purely meteorological instrument that drifted off track, and accusing Washington of hyping the incident.

That assertion may be harder to sustain as the U.S. recovers parts of the balloon from debris scattered over a patch of about three-quarters of a square mile. The device was 200 feet tall and similar in size to an Embraer regional jet, said General Glen VanHerck, head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

In recent years, Chinese balloons have been spotted over countries across five continents, including in East Asia, South Asia and Europe, a senior U.S. defense official said Saturday. The balloons had been previously spotted near Texas, Florida and Hawaii, as well as the Pacific Ocean island of Guam, where the U.S. has naval and air force bases, people familiar with the matter said separately Monday.

In Taiwan, a balloon was reported to have hovered for several hours over the Taipei’s Songshan Airport, which is also used by the military base, in March, Central Weather Bureau Director-General Cheng Ming-dean said in an interview with local media. He said the balloon was similar to the one spotted in the U.S. last week.

The news of balloons appearing over Taiwan sparked concern in Taipei, with lawmakers from across the political spectrum urging the military to be on alert and to explain their procedures for how they plan to handle any future incursions. The balloons have been around for a long time, Cheng wrote in a Facebook post on Saturday. He previously cited a high-altitude balloon seen hovering over Taipei in 2021.

Japanese media have reported at least two visually-similar balloons floating over different parts of the country. After a sighting over northeast Japan in 2020, then-Defense Minister Kono Taro said at the time he had confirmed it didn’t belong to the country’s Self-Defense Forces’ weather section. In the end, Japan’s police and military were unable to confirm who launched it, or why, broadcaster TV Asahi said. A second incident occurred in 2021.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has overhauled its military — pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into reorganizing the command structure and upgrading everything from warships to missile stockpiles. That includes investing in the near-space area as well. Those are regions “too high for most airplanes, too low for satellites,” which the Chinese consider a separate domain, according to William Kim, a consultant at The Marathon Initiative, a Washington-based think tank.

On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told reporters that a balloon reported over Latin America was, like the U.S. one, also blown off course because it has “limited self-steering capability.” She said China follows international law, adding that “we will not pose any threat to any country.”

Balloons like the one blown apart Saturday aren’t uncommon. Alleged Chinese spy balloons were spotted on several occasions during former President Donald Trump’s administration, including three instances where they traveled near sensitive U.S. military facilities and training areas, according to people familiar with the matter.

VanHerck said at the briefing Monday that Norad had failed to detect the earlier balloons and later learned about them from the U.S. intelligence community. “I will tell you that we did not detect those threats. And that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out,” he said.

Typically balloons like the one shot down fly above 80,000 feet and as high as 100,000 feet. This time, the Chinese balloon flew low enough to be spotted by commercial pilots and people on the ground.

China used the balloon’s “maneuverability to strategically position themselves to utilize the winds to traverse portions of countries that they want to see. But this gave us the opportunity to assess what they were actually doing, what kind of capabilities existed on the balloon, what kind of transmission capabilities existed,” VanHerck said. The latest information only deepened the administration’s conviction that the balloon wasn’t “mainly” a weather-monitoring device as Chinese officials have claimed. Balloon capabilities

“They’re going to want to give evidence that this is indeed a surveillance balloon and debunk the idea that this is some sort of weather balloon,” Kim, of the Marathon Initiative said.

They’ll also be looking to understand the capabilities of the Chinese military. “What are they using to gather intelligence essentially?” he added. “If it’s taking pictures, which we don’t know yet, what kind of camera does it have on? If it’s collecting signals, which is another theory, what kind of intelligence-collection capabilities does it have?”

There’s also interest in whether the U.S. can use the salvaged equipment to assess whether it contains technology from the U.S. or its allies, as well the original manufacturers.

“The key question that no one is asking is who makes these balloons,” said Michael Raska, assistant professor and coordinator of the Military Transformations Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. If U.S. officials can access the data or software code of the system, they may be able to retrieve some digital footprints, he said.

Bloomberg News writers Bruce Einhorn, Isabel Reynolds, Samson Ellis, Philip Glamann, Phila Siu, Jennifer Jacobs and Jenny Leonard contributed to this story.

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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