Professor Dennis Wilder, a former CIA China analyst, speaks on stage at an event.
Category: Discovery & Impact

Title: Former CIA Officer, SFS Professor Breaks Down Chinese Spy Balloon

As the U.S. pieces together the Chinese spy balloon, Professor Dennis Wilder, a former CIA China analyst, helps break down the suspected surveillance technique and why students should take note of the airspace incursion. 

Wilder (MSFS’79) is a research fellow for Georgetown’s Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues and teaches Asian Studies in the Walsh School of Foreign Service. Before coming to Georgetown, Wilder spent more than three decades in public service as a leading expert on China: He served as the CIA’s deputy assistant director for East Asia and the Pacific and as the National Security Council’s senior director for East Asia and special assistant to George W. Bush, overseeing the former president’s trip to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. 

In this Q&A, Wilder shares his personal take on China’s potential motives, the “deft diplomacy” needed and what exactly a spy balloon is.

5 Questions for Dennis Wilder

Q. What exactly is a spy balloon? What information is the balloon believed to have captured?

Wilder: A spy balloon is a package of sensor and solar panels that are slung below a large helium balloon that collects intelligence. In this case, according to the Pentagon, the balloon also had propellers and a rudder that allowed it to maneuver over its intended collection target, although the balloon itself is largely carried along the jet stream in the upper atmosphere at roughly 60,000 feet. 

The type of collection this system did depended on the package of sensors onboard. We will not know exactly what those were unless the Navy is able to retrieve them from the ocean where the balloon landed. Typically, you would expect there to be a high-resolution imaging system and sensor to capture different types of communication signals.

Q. The Pentagon has said that China conducted previous balloon surveillance flights in the U.S. Why was this time different?

Wilder: There are several reasons this flight was unprecedented. It spent a long time over U.S. territory and loitered over areas where the United States has very sensitive military installations. It was also conducted at a sensitive moment in U.S.-China relations, just prior to Secretary Blinken’s trip to Beijing. Finally, it was unprecedented because Americans were able to view it in the sky with the naked eye.

Q. Why do you think China would use a suspected surveillance technique that’s so publicly visible to civilians? 

Wilder: This is an open question that no one is able to answer at this point. It is entirely possible that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army conducted this operation without coordinating it appropriately with civilian agencies of the Chinese government that might have objected. Reporting indicates that the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs was completely in the dark when approached by U.S. diplomats last week inquiring about the balloon.

Q. How will this incident affect U.S.-China relations, particularly after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delayed his first official trip to China? Do you think there was a connection between the timing of his visit and the balloon?

Wilder: The Biden Administration and the Chinese government are both signaling that they do not want this incident to derail the attempts since President Biden and President Xi Jinping met in Bali last November to put a floor under the downward trajectory of U.S.-China relations.  

But it will take deft diplomacy to overcome this setback in relations, particularly if the United States is able to publicly release physical evidence of surveillance systems. This would be a profound embarrassment to President Xi and the Chinese government that could delay any attempt to reschedule Secretary Blinken’s visit to Beijing. 

The timing of this surveillance mission is perplexing and leads me to conclude that while President Xi, who is also chairman of the Central Military Commission, almost certainly has been briefed on the overall collection program, he may not have been informed of this particular mission.

“As many of our students hope to have careers in diplomacy, I would note that a situation like this is why we emphasize to students the development of deep expertise, language skills, cultural understanding and in-country experience.”

-Dennis Wilder (MSFS’79)

Q. What do you want students studying U.S.-China relations to know about the significance of this incursion on U.S.-China diplomacy and dialogue? 

Wilder: As many of our students hope to have careers in diplomacy, I would just note that a situation like this is why we emphasize to students the development of deep expertise, language skills, cultural understanding and in-country experience. The President and his national security team will, of course, make the strategic decision on the future of U.S.-China relations, but it will be up to the professional diplomats to advise the President’s team and work with their Chinese interlocutors to find a way forward.