The Chinese surveillance balloon that began drifting across the United States on January 28 prompted headlines suggesting the incident was a foreboding indicator of malign United States-China competition. Some scholars, however, emphasized that these assertions were nothing but hot air. After all, the balloon is one of several that have been detected in the United States airspace since 2017, and merely a physical manifestation of an ongoing trend of Chinese espionage that is often much more clandestine.
So, what was it about this particular incident that generated such swift, bipartisan calls for a military response? Our recently-published research shows that it was more likely the unequivocal, timely public attribution of this surveillance balloon to its country of origin (China), rather than the actual effects of the surveillance or the more unusual means of its collection.
How valuable is surveillance? China is believed to have used surveillance balloons to collect intelligence for the past several years, though the origin of the balloon program has yet to be disclosed. These balloons have been observed in American airspace before–including four times during the Trump administration–as well as in airspaces throughout the world. China is not the only country to use this technology. In early February, South Korea also spotted a North Korean surveillance balloon over its territory.
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