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Defense Experts Sound Alarm Over India’s Own ‘Spy Balloon Incident’

A high altitude balloon floats over Billings, Mont., on Feb. 1, 2023. (Larry Mayer/The Billings Gazette via AP)

Over a year before a roaming Chinese spy balloon galvanized the United States, Indian forces spotted a similar object over the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Indian territories in the Bay of Bengal.

The incident didn’t garner much attention at the time, because Indian defense forces were unsure of the balloon’s intent and origin.

However, in light of the spy balloon incident over the United States, experts say that Chinese espionage in India is equally alarming and should be a cause for concern for the entire Indo-Pacific region.

After U.S. fighter jets shot down the Chinese spy balloon in February, the Indian defense officials, for the first time, talked about sighting a similar high altitude balloon over Indian territory.

“Quite some time back we had witnessed the balloon-type white object over the Andamans and high-resolution pics of the object were taken by our people from ground,” Indian defense sources told Asian News International (ANI).

According to the ANI report, Indian defense officials conjectured that the object was from Myanmar (Burma) which is closer to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands than India’s own southeastern coast. It could also have come from China, which lies to the northeast of Myanmar.

There was also speculation that it could have been a meteorological balloon: it is not uncommon for weather balloons to drift from Pakistan into India.

The object moved away from the islands after “three to four days,” Indian officials told ANI.

Waking Up To a Regional Threat

In exclusive interviews, Indian defense experts told The Epoch Times the object spotted over India’s islands should be of grave concern. India has been the subject of Chinese espionage as much as the United States, they said, and it is high time for the world’s largest democracy to wake up to the threat.

“Now that it has been noticed in the Indian Ocean, it also reflects that possibly this zone could be under surveillance in future, calling for alertness on [the] part of Indian Armed forces,” said Shekhar Sinha. Sinha is the former chief of India’s Integrated Defense Staff.

Peacetime surveillance is not unknown, particularly by countries engaged in “competition and likely contestation,” he said. “Many modes of surveillance are visible, while some are invisible. [Meanwhile] data collected provides presence or absence of ground structures, which may or may not be of targeting utility in times of conflict.”

After the spy balloon incident over the United States, Pentagon officials had discussions on the subjects with various countries, including India.

Such occurrences are perceived as threatening the security of the entire Indo-Pacific region. India is a member of the Quad, or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—an informal Indo-Pacific alliance that includes India, the United States, Australia, and Japan.

The discussions, however, were short and were conducted behind closed doors, according to U.S. Pacific Air Force Commander General Kenneth S. Wilsbach. Wilsbach made the comments to reporters in April. He was in India for Exercise Cope India 23, a bilateral Air Exercise between the Indian Air Force and the United States Air Force.

“We believe that your airspace in India is your sovereign space and that you should decide who [gets] to fly into it,” Wilsbach said.

“Any country that would violate the sovereignty of another country’s airspace, who is not abiding by the international law or norms should cause concern for us,” he added.

A Pattern of Surveillance

Col. (Retired) Vinayak Bhat, a former Indian military intelligence officer and satellite imagery specialist, told The Epoch Times that the Chinese have used balloons against India previously. Four years ago, he said, his satellite imagery-based research indicated that the Chinese had used balloon-borne radars across the Indian frontier in Tibet. His findings were published by Indian news service The Print in June 2019.

Bhat described the incident as a clear infringement of India’s territorial sovereignty.

“The secret collection of intelligence through such methods is illegal and India must take it [up] with China and international organizations urgently,” said Bhat.

“India must include provisions and policies against such blatant acts of espionage in its space policy. The Indian armed forces must plan for such unforeseen events and ensure procedures are in place to counter them in emergencies.”

Defense sources in New Delhi told The Epoch Times in November 2021 that the Chinese had set up surveillance technology on the India-China disputed border, within Indian territory in high altitude Eastern Ladakh.

At the time, the situation between the two neighbors had worsened following the bloody Galwan conflict of June 2020.  The battle, fought with sticks and clubs, was the first fatal confrontation between the two sides since 1975.

According to the source, the espionage objects, which were six in number in 2021, were on uninhabited border territory. They were difficult to trace with satellite imagery due to their pole-like shapes. From space, they would have appeared as negligible specks, the source said.

“The shadow would be tough to decode,” he said.

The Epoch Times was unable to independently verify this information, nor subsequent changes due to military build-up in the region post-2021. However, the source, who asked to remain anonymous, confirmed May 21 that the spying objects have increased “exponentially” since that time, with several dozens across every section of the common border.

Adding to espionage concerns were April reports about the construction of an alleged Chinese spy station on Myanmar’s Coco Island archipelago. Myanmar, India’s neighbor across the Bay of Bengal, has ties to China through the belt and road initiative.

The widespread media reports were primarily based on a March 31 report by Chatham House. The British think tank released a satellite imagery-based analysis indicating the construction of what appears to be an expanded military airbase on Great Coco Island.

Given China’s ties to Myanmar, authors Damien Symon and John Pollock concluded that “given China’s well-established intelligence practices, local intelligence from Great Coco could find its way, either through espionage or consent, to Shanghai.”

Long-term Targets

Experts believe the use of surveillance devices such as the spy balloon is a tactical maneuver, part of a wider offensive gameplay by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

In India’s case, Bhat believes the goal may be to trigger India to react, giving China a reason to wage a war.

He posited that the Andaman and Nicobar islands were chosen due to their location on the international sea trade route between the East and the West. Their location also makes them a strategic military asset, home to India’s only tri-service (army, navy, air force) military base.

“CCP and PLA [People’s Liberation Army] want to know our assets and weaknesses in that zone. That provides assessment on Indian intentions in the area,” Bhat said.

Incidents such as the spy balloon incursion point to China’s future “interest areas,” Sinha said.

“A country which has the desire of replacing the U.S. as world hegemon has much larger areas to cover over the globe,” he said. These “interest areas” are likely to be long term targets for the CCP, as part of its plans for achieving global hegemony by mid-century.