China has apparently suspended its spy balloon program

According to information received by CNN, China has now officially suspended its spy balloon program to help soothe US-China relations.
Christopher McFadden
Image of a Chinese spy balloon taken from a US U2 plane.

U.S. Department of Defense/Wikimedia Commons 

According to CNN, US intelligence assessments indicate China has officially suspended its spy balloon program (over US airspace). According to unnamed sources "familiar" with US intelligence agencies, the decision may be an attempt to smooth US and Chinese diplomatic relations. Following the interception and neutralization of one in US airspace in February this year (2023), Chinese leaders appear to have ensured no further ones have been released since.

Spy balloons grounded

When asked about the balloon program, spokesperson Liu Pengyu from the Chinese embassy told CNN that the incident in February was unexpected and isolated. “Since the incident happened, China has stated repeatedly that the balloon is found to be an unmanned civilian airship used for meteorological and other research purposes and that its accidental entry into US airspace is entirely an unexpected, isolated incident caused by force majeure,” Liu said. “The facts are clear and shall not be distorted or misrepresented. We hope relevant parties can stop hyping up on this," he added.

The US intelligence community believes that Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders reprimanded the operators of the surveillance program over the incident and did not intend for the balloon to cross over the United States. In June, incumbent President Joe Biden stated that Chinese leader Xi Jinping was surprised by the balloon's location. During a political fundraiser, he revealed that Xi was "upset" when the US shot down the balloon because he had no prior knowledge of its presence.

However, the incident was also very embarrassing for the Biden administration. This "unfortunate event" occurred when they prepared for Secretary of State Antony Blinken's trip to Beijing to reestablish communication with Chinese leaders. As a result, Blinken's planned trip had to be postponed. The balloon is believed to have originated from the Hainan province in China, then crossed into Alaska and Canada and re-entered the US through northern Idaho. The balloon was recorded as hovering over sensitive sites in Montana.

Since the incident, the spy balloon is now believed to be a part of a wide-ranging surveillance program operated by the Chinese military. The balloon fleet had recently conducted over 24 missions across five continents. Christopher Johnson, a former senior China analyst at the CIA and now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has told CNN that China's suspension of the program is an attempt to stabilize its relations with the United States in anticipation of a potential meeting between President Biden and Xi at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco in November (2023).

But for how long?

It is doubtful that China will ever admit that the balloon was being used for espionage or announce any plans to stop conducting such surveillance on the United States. However, according to Johnson, suspending the program without public announcement is a positive move. By his estimate, Beijing is likely attempting to demonstrate to the US that it is taking steps to address some issues causing tension in the relationship.

“This would be the first signal we’ve seen from the Chinese saying, ‘We know your concerns on this,’” Johnson said. As for the suspension, it is currently unknown how long the balloons will avoid US airspace, with many concluding that this is likely reliant on how the November meeting goes. The US has, however, widened the aperture of its radar systems to enable better detection of such balloons in the future.

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