A high-altitude Chinese balloon entered United States airspace near Alaska on Jan. 28, floated across the continental U.S. and was shot down by a fighter jet off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4.
Dennis Alcides Velazco Smith, senior lecturer of government, co-director of W&M’s Project on International Peace and Security (PIPS) and expert on military affairs, international security and international relations, joined W&M News to discuss this event and its potential impact on trade relations and foreign policy.
Smith’s research interests include strategic studies, coercion and regime change. PIPS is an undergraduate think tank housed at the Global Research Institute, which aims to produce rigorous and original foreign policy analysis for the U.S. national security community.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How worried should the United States be about these recent developments with these flying objects?
A: I am not terribly concerned about China’s recent use of a high-altitude balloon for intelligence gathering. According to the New York Times, the United States likely began tracking the spy balloon as soon as it lifted off from Hainan Island in southern China and as it flew across the Pacific. According to the news media, the balloon also seemed primarily focused on collecting signal intelligence — for example, intercepting cell phone or other wireless communications. These stories make sense given my non-classified knowledge of U.S. capabilities, the limitation of satellites in collecting signal intelligence and the geographic difficulties of China gathering signals from North America.
However, there has been less focus in the media on why U.S. officials viewed the intelligence risk of the balloon as “low to moderate.” I strongly suspect that given U.S. tracking of the balloon, the U.S. government turned off all sensitive communication signals as the balloon came within range of national security sites, though China probably was able to intercept civilian signals. Indeed, pure speculation on my part, officials may have seen the balloon’s flight path as an intelligence opportunity to gather information on People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) interests and capabilities or even to provide false information. Shooting the balloon down over water (as opposed to land) also made sense because doing so would have preserved more of the wreckage to recover. Likely, all standard cloak-and-danger spy work, right out of any World War II or Cold War novel.
Q: What are your opinions on how the U.S. has responded to this? What else could be in store from the U.S.?
A: I think the Biden administration has done a good job, though less so with communication to the public.
As I noted, the U.S. national security community likely turned off all sensitive communications within range of the balloon. Shooting the balloon down over water made sense for collecting the wreckage. Commercial aircraft also were not really at risk because the balloon was operating at an altitude above that flown by commercial airliners.
The U.S. publicly highlighting China’s activities was smart and, along with shooting down the balloon and imposing limited economic sanctions against Chinese corporations, sent a clear signal to Beijing that violating U.S. airspace will not be tolerated.
The U.S. and PRC do not have an interest in allowing this situation to escalate. I suspect in the coming months both sides will try to tamp down the rhetoric and seek a new modus vivendi, with red lines on intelligence gathering activities.
Q: What are the trade implications?
Beijing seriously miscalculated with the flight path of the spy balloon. The damage done to China’s image in U.S. public opinion clearly outweighs any benefits Beijing may have reaped on the intelligence front. Americans do not like foreign powers violating U.S. borders.
This balloon incident adds to the growing public sense that China is a highly aggressive predatory power that operates outside the norms of international trade and intelligence gathering. Moreover, it adds to fears of China’s military aggressiveness.
Going forward, U.S. officials and politicians will find it much harder to advocate for policies seen as lenient to Beijing. Indeed, public attitudes will likely push for a more aggressive stance toward China — similar to the “red scare” period during the early Cold War. You can already see some of that dynamic in the political response to the balloon incident in Congress.
Q: What other topics relating to this are you watching?
A: I’m interested in seeing the effect of the spy balloon on Congress’s support for Taiwan. I suspect we will see more congressional visits to Taiwan and greater pressure to provide more advance military assistance.
Nathan Warters, Communications Specialist