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What China's spy balloon reveals about Chinese and U.S. espionage and diplomacy

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Biden congratulates fighter pilots for taking down a Chinese balloon off the east coast after it spent several days flying over the US. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)
Biden congratulates fighter pilots for taking down a Chinese balloon off the east coast after it spent several days flying over the US. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

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Suddenly, the military is shooting down more foreign objects out of U.S. airspace.

But the one that matters the most for now is the first and biggest: China’s spy balloon.

"This is a real breach of the rules. Yes, we all spy on each other. But there are rules of engagement in international politics that in the realm of competition, keeps us all safe," Oriana Skylar Mastro says.

"These are things that are unacceptable."

China's spy balloon gives us a rare glimpse into spycraft between the U.S. and China. What have we learned?

Today, On Point: The U.S., China, and eyes in the sky.

Guests

Oriana Skylar Mastro, fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Non-resident senior fellow at American Enterprise Institute. Author of The Costs of Conversation: Obstacle to Peace Talks in Wartime. (@osmastro)

Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at UC San Diego and author of the new book, Overreach: How China Derailed Its Peaceful Rise. (@SusanShirk1)

Also Featured

Jamey Jacob, director of the Unmanned Systems Research Institute at Oklahoma State.

Tong Zhao, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Beijing. (@zhaot2005)

Interview Highlights

On China's surveillance balloon

Oriana Skylar Mastro: "I'm supposed to be an expert on these things, but there's a lot about these incidents that is really confusing. On one hand, I can't quickly say that these are Chinese surveillance objects. They were of a different size, smaller. They were flying at a different altitude, much lower. So it's possible that this is something that is completely independent of the Chinese surveillance balloon.

"On the other hand, one of the alternative hypotheses is this could potentially be a commercial asset. Just like commercial entities have their own satellites. They might also have their own high-altitude balloons. But then it's confusing to me why, if the United States shot down, for example, some sort of Google platform, that Google wouldn't have come out and said something about it. So, the fact that it's still unknown after so many days suggests to me that it must be some sort of diplomatically sensitive issue."

On shooting down these surveillance balloons

Oriana Skylar Mastro: "My assessment of this, and I don't want to give too much sort of fodder to the Chinese who are trying to say that the U.S. response is driven by domestic political reasons. The United States is concerned about these surveillance balloons largely because of national security. But I do think the other objects, potentially the reaction could have been driven by the fact that the American people are now very focused on the idea that there are objects in the airspace that potentially the United States is not tracking and is not dealing with.

"And so given that the Biden administration might have felt compelled to take some more aggressive action to clear that airspace, to show the American people that they have this under control, or it's possible that they are extremely dangerous items. But then we would question why the Biden administration hasn't clarified that at this point."

Did the United States change radar monitoring protocols over that area of U.S. airspace following the shooting down of the first balloon earlier this month?

Oriana Skylar Mastro: "I will say that the United States and air defense is an extremely important and an extremely sensitive topic. One of the things that have come up in the Chinese media and the Chinese discussion of these high-altitude balloons, for example, is to say that they demonstrate that the United States doesn't have control over its airspace and cannot defend its airspace the way that the United States tries to present it. That's a very dangerous narrative.

"And when I have asked people in the administration about it, saying we should clarify this because the United States does have the ability to protect its own airspace because of the sensitivities of the technology and what the United States does and does not have, how we respond to incursions, a lot of that type of information, what our readers sense, what they don't sense is not available for public consumption."

On U.S. awareness of Chinese surveillance 

Oriana Skylar Mastro: "This is speculative. ... On your show, I can be very determined about the things I know and do not know. And hopefully my confidence and some of the Chinese behavior comes through. But on this, I can just speculate. The United States has a lot of capabilities. But we don't employ all of those capabilities all the time. There are tradeoffs based on priority. And there are some capabilities, military capabilities, the United States doesn't have just because it's never been a priority.

"So, for example, China is much better at shooting ships from its coast than the United States is. That's largely because China made that a priority, given U.S. military operations in its vicinity. The United States doesn't have a lot of ships of other countries sailing close to us. This is also why I find it very credible that the United States doesn't have a program like this. Not only did the White House state that the United States doesn't have this program, but it wouldn't make any sense for us to have it, because the United States can use aircraft and ships to conduct surveillance from international waters in international airspace against China.

"China can't project power that far to the United States. So there's a lot of cases of capabilities where maybe China has something that we don't have, not because we don't have the technology. It's just that it hasn't been a priority. So what I can speculate is ... probably the United States has known about these objects for some time. They weren't on the list of the top threats to the U.S. homeland. And so we were using our air defense capabilities, radar detection, to track other types of threats. And now that this has become much more of a public issue, it's quite possible that we've redirected some of those resources to better track balloons in our airspace."

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You're confident with the assessment that it was indeed a Chinese high altitude surveillance balloon?  

Oriana Skylar Mastro: "Yes. ... China always is going to deny. I mean, this is a key part of their strategy. It's been a key part of their strategy for 20 years. When you look at how they act in the South China Sea, vis-a-vis Taiwan, you know, just like you have swarms of hundreds of boats to keep the Philippines from resupplying some islands. And the Chinese say, oh, these are just fishermen hiding from the weather, but they have no fishing equipment, you know, on them. And instead they have weapons or other platforms. You know, we can tell based on what that object is doing, what its carrying, its general purpose. And it's kind of a trope to say that it's a weather balloon.

"It's kind of like every time a country has to deal with a satellite in space where I was like, Oh, it's just our weather satellites. Like, we all know that the satellites are conducting surveillance and reconnaissance. So the Chinese, they take it to a different level of deniability. What's interesting to me is the fact that China hasn't changed their strategy at all."

How would you interpret the responses from both the Biden administration and the Chinese government in the past few days?

Susan Shirk: "The United States was trying to communicate, and the Chinese side was refusing to pick up the phone. Or saying, We need more time to figure this out. And the phone call between Wang Yi and Blinken actually came quite a few days after the crisis began. Which demonstrates that we have, especially on the Chinese side, there's internal coordination problems. And then there's a big problem with communication between the two countries in recent days, with three more objects being shot down and the United States not being able to let the public or anyone know yet what these objects were definitely has created a more confusing situation.

"And the Chinese side has used this time to kick their own sand into the perceptions of the world about what is going on. And Oriana did a very good job of describing the damage control that the Chinese side has used in the past and is using here, some of which even includes just pure distraction. Apparently, I was reading last night about a train accident in the United States, you know, with some lethal chemicals on board. So they try to find ways to preserve their own innocence by distracting the public with a lot of different methods."

On next steps in the U.S. response to Chinese surveillance 

Oriana Skylar Mastro: "The United States is doing far too little and taking far too long. And so just like with General Minihan's statements about the fact that a war is coming by 2025, you know, while I don't agree with that, I think some of these groups are primarily trying to motivate not only the U.S. people, but the U.S. bureaucracy to get its act together. And to enhance U.S. competitiveness in the face of this all-encompassing challenge. And so my sense is that their goal is not to calm down the diplomatic row, but to try to get the resources and the attention necessary for the United States to be able to protect its national interests."

Susan Shirk: "There are many things that Oriana said that I don't agree with, especially what she said about developing American strength earlier in order to be prepared to confront China if need be. I think we were doing a lot for the past several decades to strengthen the American military presence in the Asia Pacific, now the Indo-Pacific.

"And what we were striving to do is to induce China to rise peacefully so that it wouldn't ever be needing to use these military capabilities in order to commit aggression against Taiwan or in the South China Sea. I think that worked very well until the mid 2000's. And one of the surprises in my book Overreach is to show that this shift in Chinese policy actually begins before Xi Jinping. But in any case, we also had the pivot to Asia, and we were doing quite a lot.

"But of course, it's these Chinese actions that have provoked this perception of the China threat. It's the overreach, the overly aggressive foreign policy, overly repressive domestic policy that has so alarmed other countries. And in the future, if Xi Jinping now has a lot of authority. If ... he really wanted to adjust Chinese policies in order to reassure other countries that although China was a lot stronger, its intentions were more or less benign and it didn't intend to invade another country the way Russia has, then he could do that."

Related Reading

APLN: "The Perception Gap and the China-US Relationship" — "In this paper, Dr. Tong Zhao, visiting scholar at Princeton University, and Senior Fellow at the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, assesses the dangerous and growing perception gap between the United States and China and argues that it is significant enough to cause more consequential outcomes than the Ukraine war."

This program aired on February 14, 2023.

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