News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Significance of Chinese Balloon Over U.S.

Feb. 03, 2023
On February 2, the Pentagon announced that it had detected a Chinese surveillance balloon hovering over Montana. Subsequently, Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a planned trip to Beijing. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs maintains it is a civilian airship. We asked Belfer Center experts to weigh in on possible national security implications of the incident.

STEPHEN WALT — Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Affairs

“Cancelling Secretary Blinken’s visit to Beijing over a balloon was a mistake. Beijing has expressed regret for the ‘unintended entry’ of the balloon into U.S. airspace, and Blinken’s trip would have been an ideal opportunity to find out more about how and why this incident occurred. More importantly, the hasty U.S. reaction underscores the delicate state of Sino-American relations and the dangers of a further deterioration. Top U.S. and Chinese officials should be meeting more often, not less, and this decision is a step in the wrong direction.”

GRANT GOLUB — Ernest May Fellow in History and Policy

“It is regrettable that Secretary of State Antony Blinken decided to postpone his trip to Beijing in the wake of the Pentagon's discovery of a Chinese surveillance balloon over Montana. Face-to-face contact and communications between senior U.S. and Chinese officials is vital for repairing Sino-American relations, so delaying this opportunity does not serve that cause. At the same time, while this type of surveillance is rather routine for countries to do, Beijing made a mistake in letting this happen on the eve of Blinken's visit to China. American and Chinese leaders need to immediately connect to clear up this situation before it adds more tension to a currently frosty relationship.”

ANDREW TAFFER — Associate, International Security Program; Research Fellow, Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs, Institute for National Strategic Studies, NDU

“The announcement that a Chinese surveillance balloon has violated U.S. airspace and is collecting information over sensitive sites is baffling in the context of Beijing’s efforts to repair the badly damaged relationship with Washington.  For China, this action will have costs that outweigh the marginal advantages a surveillance balloon might have over satellite-based intelligence collection assets. Secretary of State Blinken has now canceled his trip to Beijing, which was intended to help ease bilateral tensions. However the balloon arrived over the United States, this is another example of a now well established pattern of Chinese actions that undermine Beijing’s political goals.” (See Taffer's related article in Foreign Affairs.)

JUSTIN KEY CANFIL — Postdoctoral Fellow, International Security Program

“Surveillance balloons are not new. There is historical precedent for their use. There are at least three interesting dimensions to this most recent case, however: how it has stirred debate about technology, law, and Chinese elite decisionmaking.

In recent years, there is evidence that some in the PLA have become more optimistic about their potential applications. For example, balloons may have greater signals intelligence intercept capabilities than satellites, or, if designed to be maneuverable, more flexible persistence. As many have pointed out, they are also far more cost-effective than defensive countermeasures like SAMs or AAMs and much cheaper to field than satellites. However, the downsides likely outweigh the upsides. In order for advantages to accrue, balloons would need to be deployed at scale. Yet relations have cratered now that the public is aware of a single balloon. Some have claimed that balloons are more difficult to detect or destroy because they have a low radar and infrared cross-section; the Pentagon's disclosure that they have tracked this and several past balloons, coupled with the recent shootdown, would seem to debunk this. Moreover, balloons of this size and altitude are visible to the naked eye. Notwithstanding potential niche applications, we should be skeptical of claims that balloon technology will fundamentally change the security environment. In this case, the intelligence contest is probably a wash: the balloon was allowed to finish transiting over the US, but the U.S. military also reportedly used this opportunity to study the balloon in return.

Despite some discussion, the international legal implications are also rather cut and dry in this particular case. Airspace and outer space are governed by separate legal regimes. Countries retain exclusive jurisdiction over their airspace, but anyone has the right of overflight in outer space. States have traditionally been intentionally ambiguous about where the boundary between these regimes should be defined, but no one has ever proposed a definition low enough to include the 60,000-ft altitude at which this vehicle flew. Even China's MFA has not disputed that U.S. sovereignty was indeed violated; instead, it has simply argued that the violation was accidental and that U.S. countermeasures were too severe.

Because the technological and international legal implications are likely only minor, the most interesting question is why Beijing would decide to field this balloon -- and why now, on the eve of Sec. Blinken's planned visit. President Xi almost certainly did not desire to scuttle the meeting and stoke U.S. public anger for what was probably a minimal intelligence prize, so this incident seems uncoordinated at best, and irrational at worst. A more predictable international environment is a safer international environment, so we can only hope this episode has spurred some serious soul-searching within elite decisionmaking circles on both sides about how to control potentially escalatory scenarios like this in the future.”

JULIETTE KAYYEM — Faculty Director, Homeland Security Project 

Kayyem wrote “Why the U.S. Isn't Shooting Down the Chinese Spy Balloon,” published in The Atlantic on February 3.  See an excerpt below.

Montana balloon crisis sounds a lot less dramatic than its Cuban-missile counterpart, and not just because the Chinese surveillance balloon spotted over Big Sky Country last night is inherently less threatening than Soviet weaponry just off the coast of Florida in 1962. This situation isn’t a crisis. It isn’t even close. Although the U.S. government had to acknowledge the presence of the balloon because regular citizens were posting pictures online, the Biden administration’s best option wasn’t to panic and respond with what the military calls a “kinetic action”—or what normal people call shooting the sucker out of the sky. It was to play for time.”

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For Academic Citation:Significance of Chinese Balloon Over U.S..” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, February 3, 2023.