When President Joe Biden was informed of a mysterious Chinese spy balloon drifting through the stratosphere, he was immediately concerned. This was no ordinary balloon – it was massive, carrying a payload the size of three coach buses and had already been floating in and out of American airspace for three days. After an F-22 fighter jet fired a heat-seeking missile into the balloon on the opposite end of the country, sending its equipment and machinery tumbling into the Atlantic Ocean, the incident has left a wake of shattered diplomacy, furious reprisals from Biden’s political rivals, and a preview of a new era of escalating military strain between the world’s two largest economies.
The Chinese spy balloon’s week-long American journey, from the remote Aleutian Islands to the Carolina coast, has left many wondering why it wasn’t shot down sooner, and what information, if any, it scooped up along its path. It has also raised questions about the broader relationship with Beijing, and what the episode means for the future of US-China relations.
The balloon’s arrival had gone unnoticed by the public until it was detected by North American Aerospace Defense Command on January 28, as it flew high over Alaska, into Canada and back toward the US. It was not initially assessed to be an intelligence risk or physical threat, but when it became clear that the balloon was on a clear path into the continental United States, President Biden ordered his military leadership to shoot it down as soon as they viewed it as a viable option.
The order set off a scramble by the Pentagon, NASA and FBI to assess the balloon’s trajectory, weather, and estimated payload in order to minimize the risk of debris falling on people or property on the ground. As Navy divers and FBI investigators sort through the tangle of equipment and technology that tumbled into the Atlantic Ocean, they must also piece together what the episode means for the future of US-China relations.
The balloon’s journey was also observed by members of the public, who looked up from the ground in awe and confusion. People like Michael Alverson, who saw the glowing orb in the sky while working at the mines in Billings, and Ashley McGowan, who received a call from her neighbor wondering if she had heard jets flying about their neighborhood in Reed Point, Montana.
The Chinese spy balloon incident has been a high-stakes episode for President Biden, testing his resolve at a new moment of reckoning with China. As the US intelligence community sorts through the balloon’s components and gains insights into its capabilities, Biden and his team must also assess what this incident means for the future of US-China relations.