U.S. House approves bill seeking more information on Chinese airborne surveillance

By: - April 18, 2023 9:21 am

A Chinese balloon flies above Billings, Mont. on Feb. 1, 2023. (Photo by Chase Doak, Special to States Newsroom).

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House passed a bill Monday that would require U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials to report to Congress their work with allies deterring Chinese surveillance aircraft and to provide a classified briefing on any airborne spying over the U.S. by the rival nation since 2017.

The Upholding Sovereignty of Airspace Act, or USA Act, passed on a 405-6 vote. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Kentucky, was among the four Democrats and two Republicans voting no. 

The bipartisan legislation was introduced in late February, shortly after the U.S. military shot down a suspected surveillance balloon belonging to the People’s Republic of China off the coast of South Carolina.

The high-altitude balloon — described by officials as 200 feet tall and carrying a payload the size of a “jetliner” — traversed Alaska, and, flying over sensitive military sites, was spotted over Montana before it tracked eastward.

China has denied that the balloon was collecting intelligence, but rather it was collecting weather data and had gotten off course.

The high-profile balloon incident was followed days later by a spate of U.S. Air Force takedowns of unidentified flying objects over Alaska, Canada and Lake Huron — objects that the Biden administration said days later were likely private commercial or research balloons.

The new legislation would require the Department of State, along with the Director of National Intelligence and the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, to detail a strategy to share intelligence with allies, coordinate export controls and sanctions with foreign counterparts, and apply pressure at multilateral meetings, including the G7 and G20 economic forums.

The bill also would mandate a classified briefing from the Department of Defense on all unidentified flying objects that have entered U.S. airspace since Jan. 20, 2017.

Surveillance balloons from China have entered U.S. airspace on multiple occasions since 2017 and have flown over 40 countries across five continents, according to the Pentagon and State Department.

The legislation also directs the secretary of Commerce to evaluate and report back to Congress regarding any aerospace technologies or components subject to U.S. jurisdiction that are used by China for reconnaissance — after which the Commerce Department would then be tasked with developing export control recommendations based on its findings.

Congress, in the proposed legislation, also calls for the president to impose sanctions, including property blocking and revoking visas, on anyone from China who is “directly managing and overseeing the PRC’s global surveillance balloon program.”

The proposal is headed to the U.S. Senate, where lawmakers from both sides of the aisle grilled military leaders about why the balloon was allowed to fly over Alaska and several other states before a U.S. fighter jet was ordered to shoot it down over the Atlantic Ocean.

Balloon’s path

The high-altitude Chinese balloon entered U.S. airspace on Jan. 28, approaching Alaska and then remaining “for a short period of time” over the state before moving over Canada, according to U.S. military officials.

The balloon entered airspace over the lower 48 states on Jan. 31. That same day, President Joe Biden was briefed, and he ordered the military to assess the best option for shooting down the balloon, officials told a U.S. Senate panel on Feb. 9.

The Pentagon first acknowledged the balloon publicly on Feb. 2 and said it “acted immediately” to protect against collection of sensitive material as soon as the aircraft was detected.

The balloon caused a rift in U.S.-China relations.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a planned trip to Beijing, with departure scheduled to occur on Feb. 3, the same day the airborne object traveled across the continent.

The next day, Feb. 4, a U.S. F-22 fighter jet from the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, fired a single AIM-9X Sidewinder missile at the balloon, taking it down 6 nautical miles off the coast of South Carolina, according to the Pentagon.

As of early April, the FBI was still investigating components of the balloon recovered from the Atlantic.

In response to an NBC News report that the balloon was able to transmit data back to Beijing in real time, Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh on April 3 said “I wouldn’t be able to say that they were able to transmit back to Beijing … I just don’t have that type of information at this point.”

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Ashley Murray
Ashley Murray

Ashley Murray covers the nation’s capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Her coverage areas include domestic policy and appropriations.

Kentucky Lantern is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.