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Beijing Deploys Spy Balloons Over Taiwan, Escalating Tensions Ahead of Key Elections

Alina Wang
A native of New York, Alina has a Bachelors degree in Corporate Communications from Baruch College and writes about human rights, politics, tech, and society.
Published: January 5, 2024
WSJ claims the Chinese spy balloon was made with US equipment.
A U.S. Navy handout of the remnants of the alleged Chinese “spy balloon” the Biden administration shot down with a missile. Anonymous Washington officials told The Wall Street Journal the balloon was made with commercially available American technology. Yet Joe Biden also claims that China lost control of the device when it was flying over Alaska. (Image: Ryan Seelbach/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

On Jan. 3, Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense reported that four suspected spy balloons had been allegedly sent by Communist China into its airspace — intensifying the already strained relations between the two nations. Three of the balloons were observed passing near an air force base in Taiwan, indicating a potential escalation in Beijing’s tactics of intimidation against the self-ruling island. 

One of the balloons entered Taiwan’s airspace on the evening of Jan. 1 from the Taiwan Strait at an altitude of 30,000 feet, cutting across the island. The other three balloons, which violated the airspace on Jan. 2, were flying at altitudes ranging from 12,000 to 24,000 feet, the ministry said.

This incident comes amid heightened tensions as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to threaten the use of force to annex Taiwan. The timing is also crucial, as Taiwan is gearing up for its presidential and legislative elections slated for Jan. 13. Beijing has historically exerted its military, diplomatic, and economic influence to sway Taiwanese voters towards candidates who support unification. 

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However, the current trend in polls suggests a leaning towards the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party — reflecting the electorate’s preference for maintaining Taiwan’s independence from mainland China.

Formally known as the Republic of China (ROC), Taiwan has preserved its de facto independence and self-governance; its government once ruled all of China before communist rebels overtook the mainland in 1949. 

People relay a huge balloon symbolizing peace and love at a rally to protest against the anti-secession law on March 26, 2005 in Taipei, Taiwan. Organizers claimed an estimated one million Taiwanese people took part in the rally to protest against the anti-secession law newly enacted by China. The controversial legislation authorizes the use of military force against Taiwan if the island moves toward formal independence from China. (Image: Andrew Wong via Getty Images)

However, the CCP considers any support or recognition of Taiwan as a direct challenge to its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Consequently, it has long threatened to use military force and other necessary means to retake and reunite the island with the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC). It also requires all countries that wish to pursue diplomatic relations with it to first break off any ties with Taiwan in accordance with its “One-China principle.”

This policy, in addition to Taiwan’s 1971 expulsion from the United Nations (UN) in favor of Beijing, has significantly impacted Taiwan’s international standing and diplomatic outreach. 

On high alert

Beijing’s strategy of intimidation has typically involved the deployment of navy ships and warplanes near Taiwan. The use of balloons for intelligence collection marks a new phase in these efforts. 

The ROC Defense Ministry noted that three of the balloons traversed from east to west in proximity to the Ching-Chuan-Kang air base — a critical site for Taiwan’s defense against the mainland. The fourth balloon was spotted north of the Keelung port, a vital node in Taiwan’s trade, especially with Japan, a key U.S. treaty partner.

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) storm ashore from landing crafts in an exercise aimed to simulate an invasion of Taiwan’s coast on Sept. 10, 1999. (Image: STR/AFP via Getty Images)

The incident echoes a previous situation where a Chinese balloon was shot down by the U.S. Air Force over North America in February. The Biden administration revealed that the balloon was part of a vast surveillance program — operated by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) — aimed at over 40 countries. This fleet of balloons, equipped with advanced intelligence-gathering technology, is allegedly designed for spying and has been observed over various regions worldwide.

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As Taiwan gears up for its upcoming elections, its rocky relations with Beijing have drawn attention to the broader issue of regional security in East Asia. The U.S., along with other democratic nations, have expressed support for Taiwan — albeit carefully balancing their official diplomatic relationships with the PRC. 

In May 2022, during a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, U.S. President Joe Biden said that if Beijing were to launch an attack against Taiwan, the U.S. would intervene “militarily” and come to the island’s defense. 

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However, the White House walked back Biden’s comments following the meeting, stating that they don’t reflect a change in U.S. policy regarding Taiwan. Biden’s remarks marked the third time that the president said Washington would protect Taiwan from a mainland attack, only to have the White House walk those comments back later on.

Under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which commits U.S. support of Taiwan’s self-defense in the form of weaponry and intel, Washington continues to hold informal relations with the island, despite not formally recognizing it as an independent nation.