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China spy balloon over US ups tension ahead of Beijing talks

China spy balloon over US ups tension ahead of Beijing talks

3 min. 03.02.2023
Pentagon reports on a Chinese surveillance balloon that flew at high altitude over the western United States
This handout photo shows a suspected Chinese spy balloon in the sky over Billings, Montana
This handout photo shows a suspected Chinese spy balloon in the sky over Billings, Montana
Photo credit: AFP

The Pentagon is tracking a Chinese surveillance balloon that lingered at high altitude over the western US, home to sensitive sites including nuclear-missile silos, injecting new strain into ties ahead of a Beijing visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The Chinese balloon, first spotted earlier this week, was loitering over Montana — home to Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile silos — but posed no physical or intelligence threat, a senior Defense Department official said. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin informed President Joe Biden, but recommended leaving it alone because of the possible risk of falling debris.

“The US has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now,” Brigadier General Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters. “It is currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.”

It wasn’t the first time a spy balloon had been spotted over US territory, although this one is staying longer than in past cases. The official declined to say why the US believed the balloon belonged to China, saying only that US had high confidence in the assessment.

An aerial file photo showing the Pentagon (US Department of Defense) in Washington, DC
An aerial file photo showing the Pentagon (US Department of Defense) in Washington, DC

The Biden administration briefed staff for the “Gang of Eight,” a group including the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, an official said. 

The administration disclosed the balloon’s existence just days ahead of Blinken’s expected China trip, the first such-high-level visit to Beijing since before the coronavirus pandemic. The trip was presented as part of Biden’s effort to set a “floor” under the relationship, and it was unclear if Blinken would go ahead.

Once US officials became aware of the balloon earlier in the week, Austin convened a meeting of his top advisers while on a trip to the Philippines on Wednesday and informed Biden. The technology doesn’t offer any intelligence-gathering capability beyond what China’s low-orbit satellites already provide, the official said.

The senior official said the US had raised the balloon issue with China, and the Wall Street Journal reported that the State Department had summoned the Chinese charge d’affaires. Neither the Chinese Foreign Ministry nor the country’s embassy in Washington immediately responded to request for comment. 

Austin had been in the Philippines as part of a US effort to rally allies and counter what officials believe is China’s increased assertiveness in the South China Sea and toward Taiwan. The US secured access to more Philippine military bases, clearing the way for a greater American presence in the region.

Tensions between Washington and Beijing have been running high, with the Biden administration becoming more explicit about its willingness to defend Taiwan in the event of a conflict. Last week, an Air Force general told his staff he believed the US and China would be at war by 2025. China, meanwhile, has taken a softer tone, calling for an end to hostile rhetoric.

With no immediate response from the Chinese, it’s unclear why the balloon is flying over the US at this particular moment. The Chinese have for decades complained about the US surveillance by ships and spy planes near its territory, leading to occasional confrontations over the years. 

Republican lawmakers demanded action from the Biden administration, with Representative Mike Gallagher, the chairman of a new House committee meant to highlight the Chinese threat, saying the presence of the balloon “makes clear that the CCP’s recent diplomatic overtures do not represent a substantive change in policy.”

“China’s brazen disregard for U.S. sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed, and President Biden cannot be silent,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, said in a tweet. 

The US official declined to answer several questions about the balloon, including the precise target of its surveillance, its size or other specifications. It’s well above the altitude used by civilian aircraft — about 40,000 feet (12,000 meters) — but not at the edge of space, the official said.

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.

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