How does a spy balloon benefit the U.S.?  

A Chinese Spy Balloon was spotted over the U.S. Feb. 1 and has since been recovered and studied. According to NPR, new details have been released connecting the manufacturer to the China’s People Liberation Army and connected the balloon to a larger surveillance operation. Illustration by Kaitlyn Tran/Daily Campus.

In the past week, news of a mysterious Chinese spy balloon hovering over the United States has dominated the media. The Pentagon has alleged that this balloon floated from China, to the tip of Alaska, and made its way across the continental U.S. until it was shot down by an F-22 fighter jet off the coast of South Carolina. The Chinese government has responded by claiming it is a weather balloon that has strayed off-course. Aside from security concerns, the very timing and nature of this news could prove advantageous to political agendas between the United States and China. 

The nature of what data the balloon could have been collecting is yet undisclosed. In a briefing last Thursday, a defense official noted that “the payload wouldn’t offer much in the way of surveillance that China couldn’t collect through spy satellites,” a claim which seems to be confirmed by the Pentagon’s own efforts developing balloons to surveil the movements of American drivers—-as at higher altitudes, resolutions begin to suffer. In a move akin to the impetus of spy satellites during the cold war, it seems entirely possible that the development of this technology is yet another race for dominance between the United States and China. 

[Text Wrapping Break]When the presence of the balloon was publicly acknowledged, Secretary of Defense Blinken expressed his distaste for an action taken on the “eve of his planned visit,” promptly canceling a meeting in Beijing with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Yang which may have improved relations between the two countries. A secretary of state had not visited China since 2018, and would have followed a seemingly productive meeting between Biden and Xi-Jinping. Discussions may have addressed issues of interest such as Taiwan and China’s expanding nuclear arsenal among others which have been contentious in the past year.  

However, such an announcement did not necessarily need to affect Blinken’s trip in this manner, since the balloons seem to be an at least semi-frequent occurrence. In spite of this revelation, this is the first time their existence has been revealed to the public. At a moment in history in which it appeared paramount to improve relations, it appears largely counterintuitive for this news to be released just in time to halt progress.  

The United States could stand to gain much from prolonging a commitment to diplomacy with China. Weapons sales to Taiwan have netted the US 1.1 billion in the past year alone, and have provided the government with a consistent cash flow of millions of dollars since the late 70s. Under the Trump administration, production of nuclear warheads began booming. His expansion of the nuclear weapons industry generated jobs for many defense employees and allowed for economic growth in the field. As a Trump National Nuclear Security Administration administrator noted in 2020, the nuclear security industry “is busier than it has been since the end of the Cold War.” This trend is being actively continued by Biden, who has allocated ever-increasing funding to maintenance, development, and production of nuclear weapons. Negotiations with China could threaten arms profits, or cause a growing nuclear weapons industry to be upheaved. 

This is not to say China would stand nothing to gain from maintaining poor relations with the United States. However, the strategic release of a balloon that cannot be steered across a massive ocean in the hopes of it arriving a little before the Secretary of Defense’s visit—and knowing that this has occurred multiple times in the past with no announcement or acknowledgment from the Americans—would be a convoluted plot to halt diplomacy. It is less far-fetched to consider a strategic release of information by the Pentagon, which could have easily chosen not to allow the nature of the balloon to be released publicly, or claimed it as one of their own.  

By peddling hostilities, the U.S. continues to fabricate the anticipation of war with China within the public consciousness. Regardless of whether or not the attention of the world was deliberately drawn to the balloon, it is apparent that upholding the status quo may likely be the primary outcome of this story.  

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