China’s Spy Balloon Case

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February 09, 2023

Why in news?

The United States has accused China of flying a “spy balloon” in its airspace setting off a political row in Washington.

What is the issue?

  • A spy balloon was seen floating over sensitive areas of Montana in the US which led to accusations against China by the United States.
  • Beijing has responded, calling the object a civilian airship used for meteorological research.
  • Within hours of the news of the first balloon, the Pentagon confirmed that a second surveillance balloon is floating over the Latin American skies.
  • The Chinese surveillance balloon was shot down by the U.S. military.
  • Beijing has dismissed Washington’s accusations of surveillance and international airspace violation as an attempt to attack and smear China.
  • China said that it is a force majeure (unforeseen event) as the airship deviated far from its planned course due to the Westerlies and limited self-steering capability.


What is the history of surveillance balloons?

  • Spy balloon is literally a gas-filled balloon that is flying quite high in the sky and has some sophisticated cameras and imaging technology on it.
  • High-altitude balloons have been used since 18th century for reconnaissance and other military missions dates.
  • French Revolutionary Wars – In the late 18th century, balloons were used to provide a bird’s eye view of the battlefield and been an evidence of their use in the Battle of Fleurus in 1794.
  • From the American Civil War to World War I - Balloons have been in use in all kinds of conflict, primary mode of big-picture reconnaissance, providing perspective on enemy.
  • Japanese military tried to hit flammable bombs into US territory using balloons that were designed to float in jet stream air currents killing several civilians.
  • Project Genet – It is a large-scale series of missions that flew photographic balloons over Soviet bloc territory by the U.S military.

What are the pros and cons of spy balloons?

Pros of spy balloons

  • Cheap to use - Unlike satellites which can cost millions of dollars to create, and require sophisticated technology to launch, high-altitude balloons are cheap and easy to launch and control.
  • Quality images at lower heights - Satellites move at higher altitudes and incredible speeds but spy balloons will hover around at lower heights, thus providing better quality images.

Cons of spy balloons

  • Time - It takes more time to gather intelligence in a particular area unlike satellites that are aimed at perfect time and space.
  • Altitude changes - While balloons cannot directly be steered they can be roughly guided to a target area by changing altitudes to catch different wind currents.

What is the impact on China-U.S ties?

  • Relationship getting worser – The relationship have been tense in recent times with issues ranging from Taiwan and the South China Sea, to human rights in China’s western Xinjiang region.
  • The detection of the balloon over Montana sparked a diplomatic crisis, leading to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling off a highly anticipated visit to China.
  • China also slammed the move to shoot it down as an overreaction.
  • Now it is getting even worse as the security of the nation is questioned.
  • Balloons were also spotted over Japan in 2020 and 2021, and over India’s Andaman Islands last year.
  • New Delhi and Tokyo may now be prompted to reassess how they handle such intrusions in the future.



  1. The Indian Express | What is a spy balloon?
  2. The Indian Express | About the Chinese spy balloon floating over the US
  3. The Hindu | On China-U.S. ‘spy balloon’ row
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