Chinese balloon had intelligence and monitoring capabilities: US

Feb 10, 2023 08:29 AM IST

US officials brief India, among other countries, on the balloon surveillance that spread across 40 countries, 5 continents.

Washington: The US has concluded that the Chinese surveillance balloon that traversed across its continental territory before it was shot down had signal intelligence and monitoring capabilities and was a part of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) fleet of surveillance balloons that has conducted similar operations in over 40 countries across five continents.

The Chinese spy balloon drifts to the ocean after being shot down off the coast in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, US, on Saturday. (REUTERS)
The Chinese spy balloon drifts to the ocean after being shot down off the coast in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, US, on Saturday. (REUTERS)

Even as state department revealed its findings on Thursday, the US House of Representatives passed a unanimous resolution condemning the Chinese Communist Party’s use of the balloon as a “brazen violation” of American sovereignty.

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Separately, on Wednesday, the Pentagon said that there had been four previous Chinese surveillance balloons incursions into US territory, while secretary of state Antony J Blinken reiterated that the Chinese action was “irresponsible” and that the US had briefed its allies and partners on the issue.

HT has confirmed that the state department briefed Indian diplomats in Washington DC on the Chinese surveillance operation and alerted them that India was among the countries that are targets of Chinese surveillance.

Also read: US says it's 'continuing efforts to expose China's surveillance activities'

On Thursday, the state department said that based on imagery obtained by U2 flybys, it was clear that the equipment on the balloon was for “intelligence purposes” and inconsistent with “equipment onboard weather balloons”. China has claimed that the balloon was collecting meteorological data and had strayed off course and accused the US of “overreacting”.

The state department, instead, alleged that the balloon had “multiple antennas to include an array likely capable of collecting and geolocating communications”. It has also concluded that the balloon was manufactured by a firm with direct links to the PLA. “The United States will also explore taking action against PRC entities linked to the PLA that supported the balloon’s incursion into US airspace.”

The US will also “look at broader efforts to expose and address the PRC’s larger surveillance activities that pose a threat to our national security, and to our allies and partners,” the department said.

The discovery of the balloon has triggered off a diplomatic crisis between the US and China and led Blinken to postpone his visit to Beijing. It also led to a political backlash in Washington DC, with Republicans first blaming the Joe Biden administration of failure in allowing the balloon to enter US airspace and not having shot it down immediately. The administration has said that it was waiting for the right moment to do so, in order to ensure that there was no harm caused by the debris. The US military eventually shot down the balloon over the Atlantic, off South Carolina, on Saturday, seven days after the balloon had entered US skies.

In the House, a chamber fractured by partisan divides, both Republicans and Democrats came together to pass a resolution with 419 votes in favour and none against condemning China. It called on the administration to keep Congress apprised through comprehensive briefings on the situation, including by providing a timeline of events from the detection of the surveillance balloon to the point it was shot down, an overview of the data that China was able to collect, measures taken to mitigate the intelligence collection threat, and the previous times Beijing has used balloons across the world.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Blinken said that China presented both systemic and tactical challenges to the international system.

“Last week, Beijing violated international law and US sovereignty with the presence of a Chinese surveillance balloon in US airspace. This was an irresponsible act, in response to which we acted responsibly and prudently to protect our interests.”

Blinken added that there was an ongoing operation to recover the balloon’s components and the US was analysing the components to learn more about the surveillance programme. “We will pair that with what we learn from the balloon what we’ve gleaned based on our careful observation of the system when it was in our airspace…We will also share relevant findings with Congress as well as with our allies and partners around the world.”

Blinken said that the US had shared information with dozens of countries already because the Chinese programme had violated the sovereignty of countries across five continents and the US was not the only target. The US has briefed India, along with other countries, about the nature of the Chinese surveillance, the specifics of the balloon, and the scope of such operations globally.

At a time when there is speculation on who in China authorised the balloon and the timing of it, Blinken said that it did not matter at one level which individuals may or may not be responsible. “The fact is China engaged in this irresponsible action, a violation of our sovereignty and territorial integrity and international law. And as we have noted as well, we are not alone in this. Countries across five continents have also had surveillance balloons overfly their territory, which is why we are sharing this information with others. We continue to look to China to act responsibly as well to help us in managing this relationship responsibly. That’s what we continue to look for.”

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The US received support from the Nato secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, who was speaking to the press along with Blinken. He said, “The Chinese balloon over United States confirms a pattern of Chinese behaviour, where we see that China over the last years has invested heavily in new military capabilities, including different types of surveillance and intelligence platforms. And we have also seen increased Chinese intelligence activities in Europe - again, different platforms. They use satellites, they use cyber, and as we have seen over the United States, also balloons.”

Stoltenberg said that the episode had shown the need to be vigilant, be aware of the “constant risk of Chinese intelligence”, and step up what needs to be done to protect against it.

In yet another instance of how the West is now treating the European and the Indo-Pacific security theatres as an integrated space, he added that the incident had also highlighted how security was global, not regional, anymore. “What happens in Asia matters for Europe, and what happens in Europe matters for Asia and also, of course, for North America.”

The secretary-general said that during his visit to Japan and South Korea last week, these partners of Nato had “highlighted the importance of strengthening the cooperation between Nato and our partners in the Indo-Pacific to address the challenges that China poses to our security, to our values, and to our interests.”

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    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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