Most countries collect intelligence on their adversaries, their potential adversaries, and sometimes even their friends. That fact should come as a shock to no one, except maybe the woefully uninformed about international affairs. Intelligence collection can include all means from human spies to satellites, to, apparently even spy balloons.
Despite the fact that “everybody does it,” the countries spied upon cannot simply ignore it when spying attempts against them become blatantly transparent. Such was the case recently when a Chinese intelligence collection balloon became clearly visible floating across American skies. A country caught red-handed in the act of spying must face repercussions. That is simply one of the rules of international espionage. It is like a shadow game, although the stakes can be very high and the game always has the potential to turn deadly serious.
Related: US Navy releases first images of Chinese balloon recovery
For now, this spy balloon episode thankfully does not appear to be fraught with such danger. For one, it was a balloon that was coasting above and across U.S. territory, and not an overly nefarious collection platform. This was not the equivalent of a manned CIA U-2 spy plane shot down over Russia during the height of the Cold War. There was no life in danger here, nor a collection platform that could be misconstrued as part of an aggressive military-like posture.
However, regardless of its fairly benign nature, the American government could not simply ignore the Chinese spy balloon. To do so would have conveyed political weakness to domestic rivals, and more dangerously, to foreign adversaries as well. A lack of any response would have invited further incursions, and a sense of immunity to the rules of international espionage.
On the other hand, engaging the intelligence platform with force — as was done in this case when the U.S. military shot down the balloon — has the potential to escalate events into a crisis, especially if the platform in question is manned by a human. Again, this was not the case here, and both the American and Chinese governments appear determined to prevent this episode from escalating into something more than what it is: a clumsy effort by the Chinese to do routine surveillance over the United States.
Related: Chinese spy balloon: Answering all your questions (and dispelling the myths)
There are many reasons why intelligence collection is a murky, secretive, and largely hidden pursuit. Most citizens remain blissfully unaware of the regular and daily acts of intelligence “aggression” that happen across the globe. Part of the reason for that is for governments to avoid igniting a fire of popular outrage or martial sentiment, amongst peoples of opposing countries.
Intelligence professionals operate in a manner similar to professional sports teams. The shadow game is often bitter, hard-fought, and can even be brutal, but the players all generally know the rules, they usually obey them, and they mostly want to avoid the intra-game passions from spilling outside of the field and into the stands. The stands, after all, are filled with passionate partisans who might just be eager to turn a well-established and structured game between rival professional teams into an all-out orgy of violence between countries.
Most of us want to avoid that if at all possible, so that cooler heads can prevail and the game can go on with its defined rules that prevent global calamity.
Feature Image: Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry looking on, while then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden raises his glass to toast Chinese President & Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping at a State Luncheon in the Chinese leader’s honor at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, DC, on September 25, 2015. (U.S. State Department)
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Tj Pandolfino says
It would be everything you need to know
Aj Pandolfino says
I just think it’s against the 1967 planetary protection act! It can get you sick badly- Creates microbial spore bacteria/ typically will stay dormant for two years! And can affect the environment -can change the World fast! Anything Air Force aircraft Generally especially NASA hast to quarantine for months when something lands! I believe it’s not just against international law – I believe it’s against planetary protection law! Because it is 100%!!! It can cause an airborne virus As well as the space shuttle that landed in the beginning of the Corona virus!