China balloon saga spotlights Beijing’s global surveillance push
The high-profile spectacle of an alleged Chinese surveillance balloon flying over the continental U.S. is shining a spotlight on the prevalence of similar incidents around the world, from Taipei to Latin America.
While the U.S. is believed to use such devices, officials have said the balloon downed off the South Carolina coast this weekend is part of a broader global surveillance program rolled out by Beijing.
It highlights the escalating intelligence battle between the U.S. and China, utilizing everything from geostationary satellites and signals intercepts to old-fashioned spy craft. Now balloons are seen as a key part of that arsenal.
Officials in Beijing conceded that the balloon that drifted across the U.S. mainland last week came from China, but they rejected the Pentagon’s claim that it was intended for spying, instead suggesting it was a purely meteorological instrument that drifted off track, and accusing Washington of hyping the incident.
That claim may be harder to sustain as the U.S. military sends divers to salvage the equipment, and scrutiny intensifies of previous episodes with similar-looking equipment.
In recent years Chinese balloons have been spotted over countries across five continents, including in East Asia, South Asia and Europe, a senior U.S. defense official said Saturday.
In Taiwan, a balloon was reported to have hovered for several hours over the Taipei’s Songshan Airport, which is also used by the military base, in March, Central Weather Bureau Director-General Cheng Ming-dean said in an interview with local media. He said the balloon was similar to the one spotted in the U.S. last week.
The news of balloons appearing over Taiwan sparked concern in Taipei, with lawmakers from across the political spectrum urging the military to be on alert and to explain their procedures for how they plan to handle any future incursions. The balloons have been around for a long time, Ming-dean wrote in a Facebook post on Saturday. He previously cited a high-altitude balloon seen hovering over Taipei in 2021.
Japanese media have reported at least two visually similar balloons floating over different parts of the country. After a sighting over northeast Japan in 2020, then-Defense Minister Kono Taro said at the time he had confirmed it didn’t belong to the country’s Self-Defense Forces’ weather section. In the end, Japan’s police and military were unable to confirm who launched it, or why, broadcaster TV Asahi said. A second incident occurred in 2021.
Under President Xi Jinping, China has overhauled its military — pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into reorganizing the command structure and upgrading everything from warships to missile stockpiles.