It’s one of those rare stories that goes from global threat to internet sensation almost immediately. News earlier this month that the US was tracking a Chinese high-altitude balloon flying more than 60,000 feet over the country – and above strategic military installations – sparked fears of a major security breach. At the same time, it led to a deluge of online jokes and memes on a scale not seen since the Suez Canal was blocked by an errant container ship in 2021.

Now though, it appears the incident could be less of a curiosity and more of a window into a covert intelligence-gathering battle between Washington and Beijing. On Monday, the Pentagon confirmed it had shot down more unidentified flying objects in American airspace. At a press briefing, General Glen VanHerck, who oversees air defences across the northern United States said that a fourth “octagonal” device been downed near to military sites in Michigan.

While VanHerck was careful not to describe the trio as “flying objects” and said officials haven’t ruled out even “extraterrestrial” origins, analysts and media outlets have gone into overdrive speculating that a string of Chinese spy balloons have now been intercepted.

Surveillance balloons of this type are notoriously difficult to detect because they are relatively small, fly at high altitudes and the inert gas that keeps them buoyant is hard to pick up on radar. In fact, the first balloon was actually spotted by civilians on a nearby airplane, starting a race to work out what was soaring above the clouds. The US is now accusing China of using them as part of a large-scale reconnaissance programme that Secretary of State Antony Blinken says “has violated the sovereignty of countries across five continents.”

At the same time, officials hinted there had been detections of spy balloons in previous years, including several during the tenure of former US President Donald Trump. However, Keith Kellog, who served on the National Security Council during that administration, says the issue “never came up” and that “if it did happen under President Trump and he was not told, that’s more than just egregious, that’s a dereliction of duty.”

Over the past few days there have been reports of balloon sightings further afield, with one spotted above Venezuela and Costa Rica. Colombia’s air force later confirmed it had detected “an object above 55,000 feet in altitude, which entered Colombian airspace in the north of the country, with characteristics similar to those of a balloon.” It was left to chart its course, and the Chinese embassy in Costa Rica later issued an apology for the incident.

China has access to a massive network of more than 260 surveillance satellites that it could use to image continental North America and, until recently, balloons were seen as obsolete technology. One American defence official said that such flights would have “limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective.” However, a number of analysts now believe they can be used to extend surveillance capabilities, interact with digital infrastructure and provide more constant data flows compared to orbiting satellites.

“We collect intelligence on China from bases all around their east coast, in Japan, Guam and Australia. We fly P-8 [surveillance] flights on a daily basis and the Chinese can’t do that,” Bonnie Glaser, a China analyst at the German Marshall Fund told The Guardian. “It looks to me like they have gotten creative in finding a way to collect information that they think probably provides them with some insights into US capabilities and possibly vulnerabilities.”

Initially, Beijing denied any involvement, claiming the first incident was simply down to a weather probe that had been blown off course. Now though, the rhetoric is changing. Speaking to reporters on Monday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin alleged that the US itself had flown high-altitude balloons over his country almost a dozen times. “The first thing the US needs to do is change its ways and reflect on itself, and not to smear and incite confrontation,” he said, defending Beijing’s ploy without actually admitting to it.

Now, the world is waking up to a potential new theatre opening up in a simmering conflict between China and the West, with balloons seemingly set to play a major role. With the FBI analysing the wreckage of the first one shot down, there are major questions to be answered about what information they might be collecting, and how long they might have been looking down from the skies.

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