Overinflated: China’s Balloon Threats to Taiwan

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Overinflated: China’s Balloon Threats to Taiwan

These balloon flights aren’t new, have no clear military use, and don’t seem to pose much of a threat.

Overinflated: China’s Balloon Threats to Taiwan

Taiwan military vessels are seen in Keelung Harbor in Taiwan, on Aug. 4, 2022. Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said a Chinese military surveillance balloon passed over the northern port city of Keelung on the night of Dec. 7, 2023, then continued travelling east before disappearing.

Credit: AP Photo/Johnson Lai

Taiwan continues to make headlines nearly two months past its presidential and legislative elections. Alongside debates about maritime law around Taiwan’s Kinmen Islands, another issue that garnered attention in the West has been China’s balloon flights over Taiwan. Many have declared these balloons as the most recent example of Beijing’s gray-zone coercion tactics and urged action to mitigate the threat. 

However, contrary to what much of the recent discourse over the balloons suggests, this is not the first iteration of China’s use of weather balloons around Taiwan. Although the balloons originate from China, it isn’t certain that they come from the People’s Liberation Army. Much of the evidence points to these balloons not posing a risk, and arguments that these flights are breaking down deterrence or giving China the “upper hand” are flawed.

After a Chinese balloon crossed through the continental United States in February 2023, Taiwanese officials revealed that they had recorded “dozens” of fly-overs of Chinese spy balloons in the last couple of years. Interestingly, only one of those incidents had been publicly reported by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) previously – an incident involving the sighting of several balloons around the north of the country. 

Following this announcement, Maj. Gen. Huang Wen-chi of the MND told reporters that Taiwan would shoot down any balloon considered to be a national security threat, though he noted that the balloons over Taiwan had been mostly meteorological so far. Later in 2023, the MND doubled down on this statement. It began tracking the balloons officially, and reaffirmed that Taiwan would engage any balloons thought to be representing a threat. 

The current cycle of balloon drama can be traced back to December, when the MND began publishing daily numbers and yet again told reporters it would “handle” any threat posed by the balloons. It is important to note that while many analysts in the West insist there is a greater implication in these flights, the MND itself has not announced that the balloons pose a heightened risk. In fact, as this article will later explore, there is a significant lack of information being published about the balloons themselves. 

Ostensibly, China could be using its balloons for a number of purposes. The most obvious one is to conduct surveillance and obtain imagery more accurately than satellites. While modern satellite imagery systems are robust, balloons, aside from being far cheaper, can loiter over the target longer, tracking developments within specific time frames without depending on satellite orbits

However, our work mapping the balloon overflights over points of interest in Taiwan shows that there likely isn’t a focus on gaining a specific category of imagery. While some of the flights pass over landing beaches, radar sites, and ground bases, far more go over rural areas with no infrastructure, while many bypass the island completely. It is far more likely that these are weather balloons instead of a strategy to overwhelm analysts with flights.

Furthermore, the MOD’s posts only show flights that cross over Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). This could inadvertently lead observers to believe that these are the only balloons in the region, from there inferring that China has a special focus on sending balloons over or near Taiwan. It is far more likely, however, that there are many more balloons flying in the Indo-Pacific that are not being tracked. We are only seeing a small piece of the puzzle, and this survivorship bias creates a panic that is undue.

Some argue that each time China successfully sends flights of aircraft through Taiwan’s ADIZ or a barrage of balloons near major cities, it undermines commitments made by the Ministry of National Defense to prevent these violations. One of the major issues with this line of reasoning is that this action is largely rendered ineffective without a significant media campaign pushing the notion that these balloons pose a threat. The irony lies in the fact that the MND is the only entity discussing the issue, with graphics showing paths that the balloons traverse. These postings create tensions where there aren’t any, and continue giving life to supposed threats that wouldn’t hold weight otherwise.

As established above, the balloons themselves are nothing new. So why are we only now seeing daily social media posts and reports on them? 

It’s notable that the timing aligned with Taiwan’s election season. In December 2023, shortly after the first incident in this cycle, the MND publicly announced that it would increase readiness around election seasons. This included the explicit goal of preventing gray-zone aggression that could coerce the population. 

Interestingly, this speech included several minor details about the balloons, with MND official Colonel Lo Yung-chang commenting that they are “from China, and not necessarily from the PLA.” Lo additionally detailed that “most of the ones we have spotted so far are weather balloons,” coming in the winter. This suggests a combination of heightened alarm coinciding with weather patterns that resulted in a potential communications gap regarding perceived risk between the MND and the Western media and analysts writ large.

Western outlets continue to warn of imminent threats and a looming Taiwan Strait crisis, while few point out the true opinions of people living in Taiwan. Despite recent balloon flights being tracked as low as 12,000 feet, there is a complete lack of discussion about these flights, or even any photos of them, appearing on public forums. By comparison, the balloon that flew over the United States in early 2023 was recorded at 60,000 feet, but thousands of images of it were spread across the internet. The absence of discussion surrounding something so overt points to the fact that the Taiwanese people either don’t care about these balloons or, even more likely, don’t notice them.

Even if the balloons are judged to be a risk to national security, it is certainly not a surveillance risk worse than what already exists around and often inside Taiwan. In recent years China has developed a sophisticated geospatial intelligence capability that would allow for detailed tracking of sensitive Taiwanese military assets. In the maritime domain, Chinese research and surveillance vessels circle Taiwan constantly with impunity. Chinese surveillance aircraft routinely fly near the island, while ground infiltration remains a constant issue. There is a debate to be had about red lines and deterrence, but it is certain that the intelligence supposedly gained by these balloons is minimal in value. 

While these balloons distract from real threats against Taiwan, similar flights may be used against Taiwan, the United States, or allies in the future with real implications. This means that the current situation presents an opportunity to evaluate potential responses. 

One potential solution is to take kinetic action. The balloons’ reported altitude is well within the F-16V’s flight ceiling. However, there are risks to employing kinetic options against the balloons. The first is the cost tradeoff. Should Taiwan announce intentions to shoot down every balloon that crossed into its airspace, China would surely use “salami slicing” tactics to disrupt that red line. Compounding that is the financial cost of such action, which would involve either expensive surface-to-air missiles/ground-based air defense being used or having to mobilize fighters to intercept and down balloons several times a day.

Instead of using costly systems to offset and eliminate Chinese balloons from its airspace, Taiwan should embrace a “conceal and reveal” mindset. The United States faced a similar challenge during the Cold War, with the need to maintain operational security and secrecy of weapons development while under the Open Skies Treaty. Taiwan can move and camouflage equipment while enforcing stricter signal emissions protocols as these slow-moving balloons are detected. Using weather forecasting and modeling to identify common balloon routes would allow Taiwan to predict when and where balloons may be flying.

Exchanging lessons and tools to obscure intelligence gains between the United States and Taiwan would help thwart China’s efforts. Although constricted by strategic ambiguity, the United States has pursued initiatives to prepare and develop the Taiwanese military. The United States and other partner nations can work with Taiwan to develop effective response protocols and strengthen military-to-military communications that, even if at an unofficial level, deepen insight into Taiwan’s defense apparatus to improve the U.S. ability to defend Taiwan. Washington could even implement a bilateral consultation mechanism, along with allies such as Japan, specifically to track and record balloon traffic. 

Furthermore, the U.S. could expand research into ground-based anti-satellite technology such as jamming capabilities. Developing technologies and methods of mitigating the abilities for balloons to gain valuable intelligence can be used not only for Taiwan, but for a number of U.S. allies.

Despite the daily reports and alarmist news articles, it seems unlikely that what appear to be Chinese weather balloons will endanger Taiwanese national security to the point of requiring a significant response. However, the practices discussed above would allow the Taiwanese and U.S. governments to reduce the risk of aerial and geospatial surveillance. 

These balloons are what they appear to be: a bunch of hot air. But it doesn’t mean that understanding their use and investigating defenses against them isn’t worthwhile.