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China tries to control narrative against US in fallout of balloon incident

FILE - An American flag is flown next to the Chinese national emblem during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Nov. 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Andy Wong, File)
FILE - An American flag is flown next to the Chinese national emblem during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Nov. 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Andy Wong, File)
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The fallout after the U.S. shot down a suspected surveillance balloon from China has reemphasized the continuing fight between world powers to gather intelligence and win the fight for information.

China has denied any government or military involvement with the balloon, which has once again harmed relations between Washington and Beijing and accused the U.S. of acting too drastically by shooting it down and running its own balloon surveillance program.

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby dismissed China’s claims as false quickly after they were made.

“We are not flying surveillance balloons over China. I’m not aware of any other craft that we’re flying over — into Chinese airspace,” Kirby said Monday.

The White House and Pentagon have denied or refuted all of China’s claims about the incident, but it highlights the ongoing information war between two of the world’s most powerful and influential countries.

The Biden administration has received some criticism for its handling of the incident, which resulted in three more objects being shot down earlier this week, including for a lack of transparency and conflicting messages about what was happening.

National security officials have been quick to bat down Chinese claims about the incident but there are still more questions than answers about many aspects and how it will affect national security moving forward. Even before the high-profile balloon was spotted and eventually shot down, adversarial countries like China and Russia have been trying to wage influence campaigns on the U.S. and other countries around the world.

“The Russians and the Chinese are excellent information warfare practitioners, and it is part of how they act against adversaries, if you will, they shape the information space,” said Mark Chandler, a professor of practice in Coast Carolina University’s department of intelligence and security studies and a former senior Defense Department executive.

Experts have also warned the balloon incident could lead to China becoming more aggressive in its espionage and intelligence-gathering efforts.

We know the Chinese are spying on the U.S. They have intelligence services whose job it is to spy on the U.S. and over time they will get better at it,” former Central Intelligence Agency officer and cybersecurity expert David Chasteen told the National Desk earlier this month. “As they see us as more of a threat, they will get more aggressive to try to understand what we’re doing.”

The balloon isn’t the only national security issue with China that has drawn U.S. attention this week.

A senior FBI official Thursday warned secretaries of state from around the country that Chinese hackers are a “growing threat” and could increase cyber activities against state election systems and political parties, CNN reported.

Concerns about protecting the online infrastructure of election systems have grown more prominent in the past few election cycles after the intelligence community found attempted influence operations coming out of China, Russia and Iran. There have also been several high-profile hacks of government agencies or large American companies involving hacking groups based in adversarial nations or with connections to their governments.

The FBI, CIA and Department of Homeland Security have put more emphasis on bulking up the nation’s cybersecurity and warning the public about attempted threats or interference from foreign adversaries. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which falls within DHS, has also built up its capabilities to deal with the evolving threats online.

China’s messaging on the balloon incident is the latest example of a foreign adversary trying to shape the narrative and sow doubt within the public space.

“In the United States, we want to have the moral high ground and maintain that and do that through stating the facts, ‘here's the truth,’” Chandler said. “Where it gets difficult is where you take this misinformation or disinformation from China and you go back against it, you argue against it openly, whether it's diplomatically or whether it's in the world press, you're going to push back on that, but at a certain time, you can be overwhelmed.”

Intelligence agencies and outside experts have warned of the dangers the proliferation of online information can pose to national security. It coincides with doubt about the validity of the U.S. election system, increased levels of polarization and increased calls for violence.

In addition to building up the government’s internal capabilities to combat misinformation and fend off cyberattacks, Chandler said it is important for the American public to be aware of what the country’s adversaries are trying to do.

“It is critical to our national security this is an everyday battle that Americans don't necessarily see,” Chandler said. “It's out there and it's something we're definitely going to have to deal with in the future. And the future is now.”

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