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

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

HONG KONG (Tribune News Service) — One of the Chinese entities blacklisted by the United States for alleged links to a global espionage balloon program is part of a state-owned conglomerate that develops products including anti-drone systems and blimps.

China Electronics Technology Group Corp.’s 48th Research Institute is one of six companies or institutes that the U.S. Commerce Department put on an export blacklist Friday because of ties to People’s Liberation Army aerospace programs.

That followed the U.S. military shooting down a giant Chinese balloon off the coast of South Carolina earlier this month. The U.S. has said China is using high-altitude balloons for intelligence and reconnaissance activities, while Beijing responded by saying the object was a weather-monitoring device that blew off course. Since then, the U.S. has shot down three other objects in its airspace.

CETC has a history with surveillance balloons, state media reports show. Its 38th Research Institute has worked on a balloon equipped with radar, video surveillance equipment and other technology, Xinhua reported in 2017. The same institute helped develop a 104-foot-long blimp, about the same length as a Boeing Co. 737-500 plane, that could carry devices weighing as much as 485 pounds, Shanghai Daily reported in late 2018.

Balloons are just part of CETC’s product portfolio, which includes radar, communication and surveillance systems. Its No. 14 Research Institute showcased a portable counter-drone radar in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing in 2021, according to a report at the time in the Global Times. Dubbed the “terminator of drones,” the system can be carried by a single soldier and is able to “detect low-altitude, small and slow targets despite strong noise waves close to the ground,” the newspaper said.

CETC and its affiliates have been hit by U.S. sanctions several times in recent years for ties to China’s military, suggesting the latest moves may have limited impact.

In 2020, the Trump administration included two CETC institutes on the Commerce Department’s “Entity List,” restricting their ability to purchase U.S. software and components.

“I’d look at these less as shutting down a major tech transfer avenue and more as a relatively low-cost option for showing action domestically as well as communicating displeasure to Beijing,” Blake Herzinger, a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said of the latest sanctions. They are “clearly calibrated to the specific issue of the PLA balloon surveillance program to avoid horizontal escalation to other sectors,” he said.

CETC was one of 31 companies sanctioned by a Trump executive order in November 2020. The Biden administration added two

CETC research institutes to the list in August last year and several more affiliates in December.

“The issue with China though is that it’s hard to separate the PLA from the commercial sector — a lot of this tech is dual use,” said William Kim, a consultant at the Marathon Initiative, a Washington-based think tank. “I’m not sure the U.S. can sanction every company or even academic institution that might be helping the PLA make balloons.”

With assistance from Rebecca Choong Wilkins.

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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