turbulent flight

Companies involved in the making of the Chinese spy balloon could face sanctions

Washington is confident the manufacturer of the Chinese balloon has a “direct relationship” with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)

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An undated U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation handout photo taken at an undisclosed location shows FBI Special Agents assigned to the bureau’s Evidence Response Team processing material recovered from the high-altitude Chinese balloon that was shot down by a U.S. military jet off the coast of South Carolina, in this image released by the FBI on February 9, 2023.
Photo: FBI/Handout (Reuters)

Whoever helped make China’s spy balloon is in big trouble with the US.

Washington is confident that the manufacturer of the Chinese balloon, which had “multiple antennas” for intelligence gathering purposes, has a “direct relationship” with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), a senior state department official said on Thursday (Feb. 9).

The company, which the official did not name, is apparently an approved vendor of the Chinese military and advertises balloon products on its website as well as hosting videos from past flights, which appear to have entered US airspace and that of other countries.

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The balloon’s presence in US airspace adds to mounting geopolitical tensions between the two superpowers. The US has been building pressure on China with its chip ban, crackdown on TikTok, and cracking a deal with the Philippines to access military bases near Taiwan.

Quotable: The US plans to take action against companies behind the Chinese spy balloon

“We’re exploring taking action against PRC entities linked to the PLA that supported the balloon’s incursion into U.S. airspace. We’ll look at continuing these broader efforts to expose and to address the PRC’s larger surveillance activities that pose a threat to our national security and that to our allies and partners as well.” —Ned Price, the State Department spokesperson said on Thursday

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A brief timeline of the Chinese spy balloon in US airspace

Jan. 28: The spy balloon first drifts into American territory, and is spotted spotted above Alaska’s Aleutian Islands

Jan. 30: The balloon exits American territory and enters Canadian airspace

Jan. 31: The balloon re-enters the US over northern Idaho

Feb. 1: The balloon reaches the skies above Billings, Montana, which is home to some of the America’s nuclear arsenal. Officials don’t shoot it down to avoid hurting civilians and their property with the debris.

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Feb. 2: Pentagon press secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder says the military “has detected and is tracking a high altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now.” The Canadian Armed Forces confirms the same. Meanwhile, China doesn’t confirm its involvement and urges the US to avoid hype and conjecture.

Feb. 3: China’s foreign ministry says that the machine is a civilian weather balloon that has strayed off course and entered US airspace by accident. But US secretary of state Antony Blinken, who postpones his upcoming trip to China, calls it a “clear violation of US sovereignty and international law.”

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Feb. 4: The Federal Aviation Administration temporarily pauses departures and arrivals at airports in Wilmington, North Carolina, and in Myrtle Beach and Charleston in South Carolina, and closes the airspace, to “support the Department of Defense in a national security effort.” At president Joe Biden’s behest, the US military uses an F-22 fighter jet to shoot the balloon down with a missile over the Atlantic coast. Now, it goes from being an air mission to a naval recovery mission as the US starts collecting and studying the debris. “The debris is in 47 feet of water, primarily. The recovery that will make it fairly easy, actually. We planned for much deeper water,” a senior military official said.

Feb. 7: The US says China declined a request for a secure call ​between secretary of defense Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe.

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Feb. 9: The US House votes unanimously to condemn China for its “brazen violation” of US sovereignty in flying the spy balloon and its efforts to “deceive the international community through false claims about its intelligence collection campaigns.” Separately, a New York Times report says the Biden administration is working on new rules to limit US dollars being invested in Chinese tech.

What the US has revealed about the fleet of Chinese surveillance balloons

According to a senior defense official, there have been some incidents of Chinese spy balloons entering the US airspace in the past, including under the previous Trump administration’s time from 2016 to 2020:

“PRC government surveillance balloons transited the continental United States briefly at least three times during the prior administration and once that we know of at the beginning of this administration, but never for this duration of time. We spoke directly with Chinese officials through multiple channels, but rather than address their intrusion into our airspace, the PRC put out an explanation that lacked any credibility.”

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No matter what China says, the US is confident this balloon was deliberately sent into the US airspace for spying purposes:

“The PRC has claimed publicly that the high-altitude balloon operating above the United States is a weather balloon that was blown off-course. This is false. This was a PRC surveillance balloon. This surveillance balloon purposefully traversed the United States and Canada. And we are confident it was seeking to monitor sensitive military sites. Its route over the United States, near many potential sensitive sites, contradicts the PRC government’s explanation that it was a weather balloon.”

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There is at least one other balloon like this on the American side of the world, the senior official added:

“This is not the only PRC surveillance balloon operating in the Western Hemisphere. We assess that a balloon was observed transiting Central and South America, and that that is another PRC surveillance balloon.”

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And last but not the least, America is not the only target country:

“These kinds of activities are often undertaken at the direction of the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA. Over the past several years, Chinese balloons have previously been spotted over countries across five continents, including in East Asia, South Asia, and Europe.”

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