In August 2022, a Chinese ship, the Yuan Wang 5 visited Sri Lanka.
This was claimed to be a "research ship" by China, while India said it was a "spy ship".
This caused certain amout of raised tensions between India and China and put Sri Lanka in a bad position.

In Jan/Feb 2023, a Chinese balloon entered the US Airspace.
This was claimed to be a "research balloon" by China, while the US said it was a "spy balloon".
Again, this caused tensions between US and China.

This seems to be part of an emerging pattern of links between Chinese research and espionage. I have two questions about the research-espionage connection:

  1. Is this really an "emerging" phenomenon? Have there been previous instances of such alleged links?
  2. Is there really a pattern? Are these two isolated instances, or there have been many instances of these alleged links?
  • 2
    You mean did people use research as excuse for spying also in the past? Depending on how long you want to go back this might be more something for history. Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 6:20
  • 1
    There have been many allegations that Chinese researchers with positions at Western universities or research institutes are involved in espionage. The Trump administration apparently put a special focus on this (in their usual and particular style).
    – Roland
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 6:49
  • 1
    Whether it's a country or a company, not knowing what other countries or companies are up to is a recipe for failure. This is sometimes called espionage, sometimes market research, whatever. Going beyond the norms of acceptable behavior is frowned upon, but staying within those norms is accepted as standard practice. I don't understand the question. Are you asking whether China has exceeded those norms, or whether other countries are unfairly objecting to China doing what is generally deemed to be accepted practice? Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 14:31
  • @DavidHammen I'm asking, are these situations recent or a pattern: "Some country (say, the US) claims some chinese activity A is spying. China claims no, A is only research." The truth value or fairness of these claims is unrelated to this question.
    – whoisit
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 15:34
  • 2
    Japan continues to "research" how many whales it can kill per year and continue to get away with it. The US (and China, and Japan, and Russia, and many, many other countries) conduct a whole lot of "research" into what other countries are doing and/or how to influence what other countries are doing. The boundary between what is acceptable and what is not is rather fuzzy. Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 15:45

1 Answer 1


Several equatorial countries once joined together to try to claim that satellites flying at geostationary altitude were violating those countries' airspace and should pay a surcharge for such overflights. Those claims didn't fly (pun intended). It is generally agreed upon that orbiting satellites are not violating an overflown country's airspace.

On the other hand, flying an unregistered vehicle flying at less than 100000 feet above sea level is well recognized as a threat to both commercial aviation and a country's sovereign airspace. The boundary between what must be tolerated (e.g. satellite overflights) and what is not at all tolerable (e.g. jet bomber overflights) is not particularly well defined.

The vast majority (hugely vast majority) of weather balloons fly for just a few hours before they pop. The intent is to obtain vertical profiles of various aspects of the atmosphere. A small number of weather balloons act as driftsondes that fly for days or even months. Countries or companies that launch such driftsondes are supposed to notify overflown territories regarding those driftsonde flights. There's even a protocol for doing so. Following this protocol is highly recommended practice but apparently is not required practice. When a country's "research" drifsonde just happens to overfly another country's territory, that research drifsonde can be shot down without consequences.

  • I disagree with your last sentence. China has not said they "notified the US that their research balloon was overflying the US," and the US has not said they were "notified that the Chinese reseach balloon was off track and overflying US territory". So there was no notification. By your reasoning, the balloon can be shot down without consequences, and yet there have been. (worsening of relations, cancellation of high level trip, etc). There are ALWAYS consequences with acts of violence (the shooting down part).
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 17:11

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .