Globos chinos para espiar a EEUU sobrevuelan el hemisferio occidental

Chinese balloons to spy on U.S. fly over Western Hemisphere


14 | 04 | 2023


It may have been a miscalculation on the part of Beijing, which demonstrated some bureaucratic dysfunction in the management incident and in the diplomatic response.

In the picture

Chinese balloon as seen from a US fighter [US Air Force] and its estimated trajectory over the Pacific and America

report AMERICAN REGIONAL SECURITY, SRA 2023 / PDF version from article


° The goal balloon sighted in early 2023 over Montana could be the ICBM storage and launch facility, a technology in which China has yet to learn.

° The same subject device was seen over Costa Rica, Colombia and Venezuela, but their governments showed indifference because they did not consider themselves targets of espionage.

° As the world enters a new Cold War, the Greater Caribbean -the "near abroad" of the United States- gains strategic value in the dispute between powers.


On January 28, 2023, the U.S. Aerospace Defense Command detected a device of unknown origin crossing Alaskan airspace. It was seen again on February 1 flying over the State of Montana and three days later, a US fighter jet was in charge of shooting down what was already known as the "Chinese spy balloon" over the Atlantic waters, off the coast of South Carolina. Its wreckage was recovered and turned over to the FBI for examination. The shoot-down order came directly from President Joe Biden, confirming the White House's concern about the incident.

What appeared to be an unsophisticated object turned out to be equipped with multiple antennas capable of conducting "intelligence-gathering operations," according to the U.S. State Department'sdepartment . The House of Representatives called the balloon a "brazen violation" of U.S. sovereignty and passed a non-binding resolution, with 419 votes in favor and none against, condemning China for the action.

Beijing denied that the equipment was used for espionage purposes, and defended itself by saying that the balloon was a civilian device on a weather mission statement that had gone astray. As for the allegations of airspace violation, the Chinese claimed that the United States flies over and navigates in spaces that China claims, such as the islands it has formed with sandbars in the South China Sea, whose sovereignty is not actually internationally recognized.

The balloon's appearance in U.S. airspace provoked a diplomatic crisis and led U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a trip to China. Blinken was then able to meet with Chinese officials at the framework of the Munich Security lecture on February 18, 2023 and warned them that the United States would not admit another such incident subject.

The incident exposed to the world China's high-altitude surveillance balloon program, which was reported to have invaded the airspace of more than forty countries on five continents. The late January sighting coincided with others made from Canada and also from several Caribbean countries; the United States revealed that there had been previous sightings in the Pacific. It would be a Chinese strategy to capture communications and carry out surveillance from a high altitude -they are located between 24 and 37 kilometers high, twice the trajectory of commercial aircraft- and long permanence over the goal (with some supposed advantages over observation from spy satellites, but without sufficient technical justification to implement the program).

The appearance about Montana raised suspicions about Chinese interest in obtaining information from the nuclear silos that exist in that state. There are storage and launch facilities for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM); the Chinese have less years than the United States in the development of this technology and may be interested in U.S. experience in the maintenance of the silos. After examining the recovered wreckage of the downed balloon, the authorities have found that it was able to capture images and gather some intelligence from the military sites over which it flew.

The Pentagon indicated that previous sightings near Hawaii may have some relation to the fact that the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command headquarters is located there, along with much of the Pacific Fleet's naval capability and surveillance equipment.

Latin America

The episode of the Chinese balloons had a hemispheric reach, as one of them was spotted on February 4 (the day Washington had already shot down one) flying over several Latin American countries: first it was seen in Costa Rica and Venezuela, and later it was said to have hovered over northern Colombia. Unlike the United States, the governments of the region were indifferent to this overflight.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Costa Rica informed that China apologized for the balloon observed in the airspace of the Central American country. The Costa Rican authorities indicated that the investigations would not continue since the balloon was no longer over the country.

For its part, the government of Venezuela, one of the main benefactors of Chinese government loans and one of its main allies in the region, reproached the lack of "seriousness" of the United States, condemning the use of force and taking for granted China's explanation that it was a "technical failure" of a meteorological device. Likewise, the Colombian Air Force said that the balloon did not pose a threat to national security and defense.

Beijing may have been relieved by the indifferent reaction of these governments, but the incident could further erode Latin Americans' trust in China, which has declined in recent years. Only 35% of Colombians and 41% of Costa Ricans trust the Chinese government, according to survey of the 2021 AmericasBarometer.

Xi's "miscalculation"

As the world enters a new Cold War, the Greater Caribbean region, made up of Mexico, Central America, northern South America and the Antilles -what Vladimir Putin would call the "near abroad", although in this case of the United States- takes on strategic territorial value in the dispute between great powers, both for Russia, as it was in the previous Cold War, and for China. In this way the neighboring countries to the United States are affected by this rivalry, although they do not take sides: Chinese spy balloons flew over Costa Rica and Colombia in routes that possibly had the United States as goal; in those trips they could also carry out observation operations over those countries.

The most logical interpretation of the January-February 2023 incident points to a "miscalculation" by Xi Jinping, as Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, assesses. The balloon was not going to get more information than Chinese spy satellites can already achieve, so placing an easily detectable device in the U.S. sky was an unnecessary exhibition . Analyst Peter Zeihan delves in that direction, emphasizing the bureaucratic "dysfunction" manifested by Beijing: probably the Foreign Ministry and its diplomats were unaware of the operation being carried out, so that when the balloon was discovered they had no easy argument to make; according to Zeihan, the Chinese authorities did not even want to pick up the phone because they did not know what to answer.