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Why the Chinese spy balloon case isn’t as simple as ‘just shoot it down’

Bystanders captured video on Feb. 1 and Feb. 2 of a suspected spy balloon floating over Montana. U.S. officials say the Pentagon has been monitoring the craft. (Video: The Washington Post)
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There is no question that China allegedly flying a spy balloon over the United States is provocative — especially on the eve of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s first official diplomatic visit to Beijing (which has now been postponed).

But amid the rapid calls from Republicans to simply shoot down the balloon, it’s worth running through some recent history, and the potential implications of such a move.

Espionage generally exists in something of a gray area between countries. It’s largely tolerated, with the understanding that everyone does it. Taking aggressive action to prevent it could be met with a response — and potentially a disproportionate one — that you dislike even more. This is why countries only expel diplomats suspected of spying under extraordinary circumstances.

But when it comes to aerial surveillance, that often-unstated status quo has sometimes been formalized into an official agreement. Indeed, for decades until recently, the United States and Russia participated in a treaty — originally promoted by Republican presidents — allowing surveillance flights over each other’s airspace.

A Pentagon official on Feb. 3 said that the balloon represented a “violation of international law,” but does not pose a “military or physical threat.” (Video: The Washington Post)

Dwight D. Eisenhower first proposed an “Open Skies” agreement in Geneva in 1955. The idea was that sharing information about military installations and agreeing to requirements governing these flights — such as giving advance notice, and sharing the information gleaned — would reduce the likelihood that a confrontation over surveillance would spiral into war.

Eisenhower later admitted it was a ploy, proposed with the knowledge the Soviet Union would never agree, which could be used to argue it had no interest in arms control. The Soviets indeed had no interest in risking exposing a military inferiority they were straining to keep hidden. So they rejected the agreement, with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev dismissing it as an “espionage plot.”

But the idea was resurrected in the late-1980s, also by a Republican president. George H.W. Bush proposed agreeing to allow coordinated unarmed flights over one another’s countries in the name of transparency. This time Mikhail Gorbachev, with the Soviet Union dissolving, was more receptive. The Open Skies Treaty was signed in Helsinki in 1992 and went into force in 2002, with 34 other nations taking part. Between 2002 and 2016, the United States conducted 196 flights over Russia, while Russia conducted 71 over the United States, according to data released in 2016 by the State Department.

Both the United States and Russia have now pulled out of the treaty. The Donald Trump administration did so in 2020, not because it was viewed as a bad idea, necessarily, but because of Russia’s alleged noncompliance with its terms. (In 2018, the Trump administration balked at but later approved Russia’s use of certain equipment.) Russia ultimately pulled out as well, and while President Biden opposed the Trump administration’s move at the time, his administration hasn’t moved to reenter the treaty.

China has never been party to the treaty — which doesn’t mean, of course, that the two countries don’t conduct aerial surveillance of one another. In 2001, a U.S. Navy surveillance plane collided with a Chinese aircraft over the South China Sea and had to make an unplanned landing on China’s Hainan Island. Twice in 2016, Chinese jets buzzed U.S. spy planes for allegedly flying too close to Chinese territory in the East China Sea. And that’s to say nothing of the use of increasingly high-tech satellites.

It’s not just planes or satellites, either: Pentagon budget documents last year detailed a new plan to increase U.S. funding for, yes, surveillance balloons. The idea was that we could track and combat hypersonic weapons developed by China and Russia. While such surveillance is often conducted by satellites, balloons are significantly cheaper.

The United States also had a series of balloon programs early in the Cold War intended to try to get a peek behind the Iron Curtain. The programs, known as Project Moby Dick and Project Genetrix, among other names, obtained mixed results.

The Pentagon’s stated reason for not shooting down the balloon yet is the danger it could pose to civilians on the ground. And it says it doubts the information being gleaned from the balloon would be more significant than what China is already obtaining via other means, such as satellites.

“We had been looking at whether there was an option yesterday over some sparsely populated areas in Montana,” a senior defense official said. “But we just couldn’t buy down the risk enough to feel comfortable recommending shooting it down yesterday.”

The official added that “our best assessment at the moment is that whatever the surveillance payload is on this balloon, it does not create significant value added over and above what [China] is likely able to collect through things like satellites in low Earth orbit.”

As notably, the administration said that this isn’t an unprecedented event; there were similar instances during the Trump administration.

“It has happened a handful of other times over the past few years, to include before this administration,” the official said.

That statement’s certainly worth probing further — including when it comes to that administration’s reaction.

But beyond that, officials must be considering what kind of precedent would be set by shooting it down, both for the United States and its adversaries. There could also be value in observing the balloon — and a downside to showing China and others how we would dispatch such a threat.

All of which was noted Friday by a rare Republican skeptic of the just-shoot-it-down strategy. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) suggested that the balloon could be an attempt by China to “bait the United States into disputes over appropriate rights in the air.”

“Because we would say, ‘Look, we shoot thing down. It was over our airspace,’” Gaetz said. “Then does that give China some sort of pretext for China to take some action? … If you create this sort of jurisdictional pretext, you could see things escalate there very quickly.”

Gaetz added that if we knew the balloon was gathering very sensitive intelligence, we should shoot it down. But if it’s as insignificant as administration officials say, he warned against such a step.

“Maybe they’re hoping that we go capture it,” Gaetz said of the Chinese.

It’s all worth considering, and worth putting in the context of the history of this kind of espionage — rather than jumping to conclusions about the appropriate course of action, to cast the Biden administration as soft on China.

More on the flying objects shot down over U.S., Canada

The latest: U.S. fighter jets have shot four objects out of the sky over North America this month. The first object, a balloon shot down off the South Carolina coast, was Chinese. Biden said Thursday the three other objects did not so far appear to have connections to foreign surveillance programs.

The first balloon: The first object was linked by the U.S. intelligence community to a vast surveillance program run by the People’s Liberation Army. Here’s a timeline of the balloon’s journey across the United States and photos of the recovery.

The response from China: China’s Foreign Ministry said the U.S. has sent at least 10 unsanctioned balloons into Chinese airspace since last year. China accused the United States of an “overreaction” and reiterated claims that the airship was a civilian vessel that drifted off course.

Why use a spy balloon? Spy balloons “offer a few advantages over the use of satellites or drones,” James Rogers, an academic at Cornell, tells us. The Defense Department told Congress that similar surveillance balloons had been spotted in U.S. airspace before, and a top U.S. general said past incursions by Chinese balloons went undetected by the Pentagon.