Did the Chinese Spy Balloon Violate International Law?

by LegalFix
Posted: March 20, 2023
International law

If you’ve been online or paying attention to the news recently, you’ll remember all of the fuss made about the alleged Chinese spy balloon that floated over the continental United States. While the initial commotion about the incident may have calmed down, politicians and legal experts have continued to debate an important question: did the alleged Chinese spy balloon violate international law? 

While the US Department of Defense claims that the Chinese government violated international law by sending a spy balloon into US airspace, the Chinese government has turned its anger toward the US government for shooting the balloon down. 

International Airspace Laws

The Pentagon’s claim against China is based on a 1944​ Convention on International Civil Aviation ruling. According to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), every country has “complete and exclusive sovereignty” over its own airspace. While China does not debate the validity of this ruling, some are quick to point out that the balloon flew higher than might be reasonably considered to be within US airspace. 

The ICAO treaty does not specify the maximum altitude for what constitutes a country’s airspace. Still, the working assumption of most governments is that this equates to the approximate altitude at which most commercial and military aircraft operate. Balloons, like the Chinese spy balloon that flew over the US, operate at a much higher altitude than normal planes, allowing some to argue that they are technically outside of any nation’s sovereign airspace. 

While debates about international law continue, it is worth noting that, regardless of the ICAO definition of airspace, the alleged spy balloon clearly did violate American law. According to the Federal Aviation Association, any aircraft, manned or unmanned, must identify itself upon flying over US territory, something the Chinese balloon failed to do. 

Did the US Violate International Law by Shooting Down the Spy Balloon?

The US shot down the balloon after it had completed its journey across North America, and Bejing has made its displeasure over this action known. However, the language of the Chinese statement is noteworthy. According to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the United States “violated international norms and the spirit of international law” by shooting the balloon down. 

While these words carry a strong tone, the Chinese government fell short of accusing Washington of breaching any specific laws — unlike the US statement. In general, the CCP does not hesitate to accuse the United States of illegal activity, even when the international community generally supports the US’s right to act, such as with rulings about human rights violations in the South China Sea or visa restrictions against CCP officials. So the lack of an accusation in this CCP statement may indicate that China has a weaker position in this particular international debate.

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