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EDITORIAL | If a Chinese Spy Balloon Flies Over Japan, Is the SDF Prepared?

There is first a question of whether the government and SDF possesses the capabilities and appetite to deal with a spy balloon or drone over Japan.

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spy balloon
The suspected Chinese spy balloon drifts to the ocean after being shot down off the coast in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, US, on February 4, 2023. (© REUTERS/Randall Hill)

A US Air Force fighter jet has shot down a Chinese spy balloon from the skies just off the east coast of the United States.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin explained that China was using the reconnaissance balloon to monitor strategic sites in the continental US. China denies that charge. Instead, it claims that it was a civilian balloon used for meteorological research which flew over the US by mistake. 

The United States is recovering the wreckage of the balloon and plans to conduct a detailed analysis of China's reconnaissance activities.

China's Foreign Ministry has labeled the US shoot-down of the balloon a "clear overreaction." It expressed its "strong dissatisfaction and protest" concerning the event. 

However, the fact remains that intruding into the airspace of another country without its consent to conduct reconnaissance is spying pure and simple. It is a clear violation of the other country's national sovereignty.

The US quickly protested to China prior to shooting down the giant balloon. In addition, Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled his planned visit to China. Beijing should apologize and realize that it has no right to lash out about the loss of its balloon. The US protest and shooting down of the balloon were natural responses for the sake of national security.

spy balloon
People check out a suspected Chinese spy balloon as it floats off the coast in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, on February 4. (© REUTERS/Randall Hill)

More Than One Chinese Spy Balloon

A similar balloon was discovered about the same time. That balloon was traversing the skies of Costa Rica in Central America and the South American nation of Colombia. According to a report by a major TV network in Taiwan, such balloons also flew above Taiwan at least three times in 2020 and 2021. 

The route that the balloon in the news took over the United States has been identified. It is important to note that it passed through the skies over western Montana. Notably, that is where facilities for launching US ICBMs are located within a wide area.

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It is possible that the balloon was designed to collect intelligence about the deployment of the core nuclear assets of the US military. In any event, the current situation is serious. 

China is currently rapidly building up its own nuclear forces as it seeks hegemony. Its ambitions are not only in the Western Pacific. Beijing is also pursuing the goal of being able to go toe-to-toe with the US in terms of ICBM capabilities. 

The enhancement of the nuclear deterrence posture to safeguard Japan is certain to become even more important in the days to come. 

By sending its spy balloon over the US at this time, Beijing clearly has demonstrated its priority. To China, building up its nuclear forces is more important than diplomatic harmony with the US. 

spy balloon
Remnants of a large suspected Chinese spy balloon drift above the Atlantic Ocean near the South Carolina coast after being shot out of the sky by a US fighter plane. (© Chad Fish via AP)

Spy Balloon Over Honshu: Is Japan Prepared?

At a recent press conference, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hitohiko Isozaki acknowledged similarities to incidents in Japan. The Chinese balloon that flew over North America appear very like "flying objects" seen in the skies over northeastern Japan . Those incidents occurred in June 2020 and September 2021. He added that the Japanese government was currently looking into possible linkage between the sightings. 

Isozaki was asked about what steps the Self-Defense Forces took at the time of the sightings. On that, he declined to comment. He said the government was "afraid to reveal our hand." However, if the SDF cannot ascertain the passage of foreign spy balloons through our airspace, or stands idly by when they do so, that would definitely be a problem.

Do the government and the SDF actually possess the capabilities and appetite required to deal with spy balloons and drones?

In September 2022, Taiwan shot down a drone that flew into its airspace from China. Japan too should be prepared to shoot down and capture suspicious balloons or drones if necessary for its own defense.

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(Read the editorial in Japanese)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun

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