The recent news of a suspected Chinese spy balloon flying over the United States has caused a stir, with some calling for it to be shot down. But before taking such a drastic step, it is important to consider the complex history of espionage between countries and the implications of taking aggressive action against it.
The idea of sharing information about military installations through surveillance flights was first proposed by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955, but it was not until 1992 that the Open Skies Treaty was signed in Helsinki. Under the treaty, the United States and Russia conducted 196 and 71 surveillance flights over each other’s airspace respectively between 2002 and 2016. However, the treaty was abandoned by the Donald Trump administration in 2020 due to Russia’s alleged noncompliance, and the Biden administration has yet to move to reenter it.
China has never been party to the treaty, and there have been numerous instances of aerial surveillance between the two countries over the years. In 2001, a U.S. Navy surveillance plane collided with a Chinese aircraft over the South China Sea and had to make an unplanned landing on China’s Hainan Island. And in 2018, the Trump administration balked at but later approved Russia’s use of certain equipment.
The Pentagon has so far refrained from shooting down the balloon, citing the potential danger to civilians on the ground and the fact that the information being gleaned from the balloon is likely not more significant than what China is already obtaining via other means.
But beyond that, officials must be considering what kind of precedent they would set by shooting the balloon down, both for the United States and for its adversaries. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) has suggested that the balloon could be an attempt to “bait the United States into disputes over appropriate rights in the air” and added that if the balloon is gathering very sensitive intelligence, it should be shot down, but if it is insignificant, it should be avoided.
The complex history of espionage between countries, the implications of taking aggressive action against it, and the potential consequences of shooting down the balloon must all be taken into consideration before deciding on a course of action.