Potential spy balloon raises international tensions

Caroline Hendrix, Opinions Editor

There are many parts of the world that still go untouched, from the depths of the ocean to the highest points of our atmosphere. Yet, much of the land, sea and air around the globe is accounted for, either delineated as international or national. A Chinese balloon entering U.S. airspace in early February called into question the legitimacy of these delineations and the impact of breaking international law on relationships between nations along with public opinion.

NPR outlines the timeline of events surrounding the balloon. On Feb. 2, news went public about an unidentified object flying in U.S. airspace. It was speculated that the object was a Chinese balloon used for surveillance, and China confirmed the next day that it was a Chinese balloon. However, they claimed that it was a weather balloon that had accidentally drifted over into US territory. 

NPR notes that the equipment and sensors found on the balloon are not those typically found on a weather balloon. Since the first object, the US has shot down three more objects across the country. NPR explains that the House Intelligence Committee describes the shooting down of these subsequent objects as strictly precautionary. 

China’s response to the balloon controversy is two-fold. They originally appeared regretful about the balloon and cite it as an accident. On Feb. 13, though, they took on a new tone. NPR explains this with China’s accusations towards the U.S., that they had sent balloons into Chinese airspace “on more than 10 occasions [unauthorized] since January 2022.” CNN notes that no specific details have been given by China about the location or type of U.S. balloons found in its airspace. 

The mystery surrounding the balloon and subsequent objects in the United States has even put other nations on high-alert. BBC reports that Romania unsuccessfully sent fighter jets in search of an object believed to have gone into European airspace. 

This situation highlights the fundamental nature of international communication. Even if the balloon did accidentally drift into U.S. sovereign airspace, then nations should maintain transparency and keep other countries updated about said accident before they find it themselves and expect some sort of foul play. Additionally, if a nation does intend to send a balloon or aircraft into another nation’s airspace, they should take the appropriate measure to obtain permission. 

In addition to taking preemptive measures, there needs to be some standardization of what constitutes sovereign airspace. After China responded to backlash with claims that the U.S. had flown objects into Chinese airspace, it called to question whether what one country defines as their sovereign airspace is what other countries accept to be true.

Therefore, CNN explains that the instances that China described in their backlash could be situations in which the United States was flying objects into airspace that they deem as international and China deems as their sovereign airspace. In order to avoid conflict, there needs to be some type of agreement between countries on what territory or airspace is international or national. 

Ultimately, as more objects are shot down, we can use this controversy as a way to spark conflict or a way to strengthen international law to avoid future controversies. 

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