The use of spy balloons by China has not been well documented or publicly acknowledged, so a complete history is difficult to provide. However, there have been reports and allegations of China using spy balloons for surveillance purposes.
In the 2010s, there were reports of large, unidentified balloons floating over the United States and other countries, leading to speculation that they were being used for espionage by the Chinese government. Some of these balloons were reportedly equipped with cameras and other surveillance equipment, and could fly for long periods of time at high altitudes.
In 2019, it was reported that a large balloon was found in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii, and was believed to have been launched from China. The balloon was reportedly equipped with high-resolution cameras and other advanced monitoring equipment, leading to concerns about the Chinese government using these balloons for surveillance purposes.
However, it's worth noting that these reports and allegations have not been officially confirmed or substantiated, and the Chinese government has denied using spy balloons for espionage. Nevertheless, the use of spy balloons remains a topic of concern and speculation among experts in the field of intelligence and security.
The most recent and widely reported incidents of a Chinese spy balloons are well documented. Thrust into the public spotlight, China has been publicly embarrassed by this latest incident.
"The United States was not the only target of this broader program," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.
Citing unnamed official sources, the Washington Post reported that the US believes the suspected surveillance balloon project was being operated from China's coastal Hainan province and targeted countries including Japan, India, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines, and the United States. The Chinese program is part of a worldwide spy balloon fleet. Officials have said these surveillance airships, operated in part by the PLA air force, have been spotted over five continents.
"What the Chinese have done is taken an unbelievably old technology, and basically married it with modern communications and observation capabilities to try to glean intelligence on other nations’ militaries", said an unnamed official. "It's a massive effort."
In recent years, no less than four balloons have been spotted over sovereign US territory including: Hawaii, Florida, Texas and Guam. These are in addition to the one tracked last week. Three of the four instances took place during the Trump administration but were only recently identified as Chinese surveillance airships. It was previously falsely reported that the Trump administration was aware of these balloons - they were not.
Other balloons have been spotted in Latin America and allied countries in the Pacific, officials have said.
What remains to be seen is why will happen going forward. China has asked for their shot down balloon back. That is unlikely to happen due to the intense public scrutiny surrounding this story. What is certain, is that members of the general public will be more vigilant in scanning the skies the United States.