fb-pixel Skip to main content

The US shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon. What happens now?

In this image, provided by the US Navy, sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recovered a high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, S.C.Associated Press

With Americans looking to the skies and cable news tracking the flight path of a suspected Chinese spy balloon across the United States, it felt, briefly, like a real-life version of the movie “Don’t Look Up.”

But after days of neck craning and debate, the balloon was popped, shot down Saturday by an F-22 fighter jet. And now we are all left to ponder: So, now what?

It’s not news that governments spy on one another and on their populations. Spying is how the United States learned of the internment camps in China where Uyghurs, a Muslim minority, have been imprisoned amid a brutal government crackdown. Meanwhile, TikTok, the wildly popular Chinese-owned app, collects data on millions of Americans as they casually scroll through viral videos on their phones.


Which is why the whole balloon thing was so odd in the first place. There are a bunch of different ways that China could collect the same information. Why would they do it in a way that was so brazen — and ahead of a meeting with the US secretary of state meant to cool tensions between the countries? Was it planned or was it a mistake? Is this routine, something China has been doing for years? And, most importantly, what happens next?

Here are three things to consider:

China reserves the right to take “further actions,” but what that means is unclear.

The remnants of the large balloon drifted above the ocean off the coast of South Carolina after the US shot it down. Chad Fish/Associated Press

China admitted ownership of the balloon was but said it was simply collecting weather data. When the balloon was shot down, the Chinese government issued a statement saying the move was “an unacceptable and irresponsible action” and that the government reserved the right to “take further actions.”

What China means by that is very unclear. It could mean that they simply don’t know either. But one place where it could get messy is when American military aircraft fly over the Taiwan strait.


Beginning with the Trump administration and continuing under Biden, the US military has routinely flown over the strait, trolling China by saying it’s passing through international waters and airspace. For its part, China contends all of Taiwan is part of China and believes the strait is under Chinese control.

So, if America has the right to shoot things down in its airspace, China might argue it can shoot at American aircraft in its airspace, even if that airspace is disputed.

Republicans won’t solely be on the defensive this week.

In the short term, Republicans seem almost giddy about the whole episode. After a very rocky start to Republican control of the House, Biden will have the floor to himself for an hour on Tuesday night during the State of the Union address, pointing out the GOP’s flaws.

But Republicans now seem to feel as if the balloon controversy — namely, why didn’t Biden shoot the vessel down sooner — is a chance for them to go on offense. Or at least change the conversation.

Americans could start taking data collection efforts by China more seriously.

The American political elite has very much awakened to the fact that China is something to discuss and counter. In fact, it is one of the rare areas where both parties agree.

But the rest of America may not have fully appreciated the data collection going on from China, or the other ways the country is trying to outmaneuver American leadership and influence.

It’s possible that something that everyone could clearly see, like a giant surveillance balloon, will mean there’s increasing pressure on leaders to act more aggressively toward China than before.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.