More Than Hot Air

Political scientist says China’s spy balloon is part of a multifaceted national security risk

L ook! Up in the sky! It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a... Chinese spy balloon? Montana ranchers awoke to an alarming sight on the morning of Feb. 2, and national security analysts also took notice, warning that China was most likely using the balloon to collect sensitive information on U.S. communication systems and radars. The balloon was shot down off the coast of South Carolina three days after it was first spotted, but experts say the event wasn’t just a lot of hot air. The balloon’s message was clear: China is here, and China is watching.

The U.S. government has been well aware of Chinese spy activity for two decades, said Rutgers University in Camden political scientist Woj Wolfe, an expert in multiple international security areas. The real question that keeps U.S. counterintelligence operatives up at night is, “What are they watching?”

“China has been the focus of numerous national security investigations, which have increased in frequency,” said Wolfe, professor of political science in the College of Arts and Sciences. Wolfe noted that by the time questions of TikTok’s security risk came to light, the U.S. Department of Justice was already working on thousands of counterintelligence cases stemming from Russian, Iranian, and Chinese intelligence-gathering operations.

China’s security risk has been particularly challenging for investigators. While China's intelligence services look for specific areas to target, it also uses a “kitchen-sink approach” to gather classified and open-source information from individuals who may not even have U.S. security clearance.

“This is a significant use of time and resources, but it is one that China's state security officials are willing to expend,” Wolfe said. “China has brought geo-economic competition to a higher level with the sheer number of resources it utilizes to vacuum up information wherever it is available or penetrable.”

Using its military and intelligence services, China has been charged with engaging in several hostile cyber activities, such as data theft, intellectual property theft, and cyber espionage. These actions intend to undermine U.S. objectives; in response, the U.S. government has taken many steps to improve its cybersecurity defenses and increase its ability to detect and respond to cyberattacks. This has included the creation of a cyber command within the U.S. military and the development of more robust cybersecurity laws and regulations.

Woj Wolfe, associate professor of political science

Woj Wolfe, associate professor of political science

What exactly does China want? According to Wolfe, it is difficult to look “inside the black box” of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). However, the United States continues to assess and reassess China’s actions as new information becomes available. For a long time, the U.S. assumed that the CCP mainly focused on maintaining the status quo, as reflected in China’s public statements and policies. That changed when Xi Jinping's tenure began a decade ago.

“The CCP has since adopted a more overt and focused strategy to gain superiority, asymmetrically and symmetrically, on economic, security, and intelligence issues,” Wolfe said.

Xi’s desire is fed by the CCP's perceived need to develop power over its regional neighbors and maintain an advantage over its access to resources within global supply chains, especially those influenced by the United States. China's plans to change the regional status quo initially met little U.S. resistance, but the last five years indicate a clear shift in the U.S. posture toward China's aggressive policies. The United States recently began a semiconductor chip trade war with China that will have global implications for supply and value chains as resources and production become more geopolitically diversified within friendlier territories.

Wolfe believes China’s spy balloon is further evidence of its “multipronged approach” to gathering intelligence information by whatever means possible. The sheer number of personnel and tactics China uses means that, statistically speaking, it is bound to be successful.

“There have been many failures that have become public,” Wolfe said. “But the successes that we do not hear about are the greatest concerns for policymakers.”

Creative Design: Douglas Shelton

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