The Pentagon has in recent days spotted what appears to be a Chinese spy balloon flying over US airspace, military commanders have confirmed. US forces considered tearing it down at President Joe Biden’s request, but have decided against it due to the risk that the pieces could fall on people on the ground.
The balloon is flying “at high altitude over the continental United States,” well above commercial air travel, and the US government “continues to track and monitor it very closely,” Pentagon spokesman Gen. Pat Ryder said. Its presence “poses no military or physical threat to those on the ground,” the spokesman said, adding that “other examples of this type of balloon activity have been observed in recent years.”
The US government has taken measures to prevent the device from collecting sensitive information, according to Ryder’s statement, which does not provide any further details about the device or the targets it could have been looking for.
The White House was immediately notified of the presence of the allegedly Chinese artifact, and Biden asked military commanders to present him with possible options, said a senior official in the presidential office, speaking on condition of anonymity. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, visiting the Philippines, called a meeting of senior military commanders on Wednesday to discuss the situation.
In statements to the press, also on condition of anonymity, a military commander at the Pentagon has confirmed that “the purpose of this balloon is clearly espionage.” According to this source, US forces have even used manned aircraft to monitor the device. At one point he considered shooting it down while it was flying over Montana state territory. Civilian flights in the area were suspended and military aircraft, including F-22 fighters, were dispatched, although the idea of shooting down the plane was ultimately rejected due to the danger posed by the fragments.
The trajectory of the balloon, which entered the United States via Alaska and transited Canada before continuing through the northern continental United States, flies over “a number of sensitive locations.” Montana, one of the most sparsely populated states in the country, is home to several nuclear weapons silos.
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Although similar incidents have occurred in the past, in this case the time the balloon remained on US territory is more conspicuous than in other previous situations, the command said. But the device doesn’t appear to have particularly advanced technology or the ability to obtain information that Beijing couldn’t obtain through other means, such as via satellite.
“We believe this balloon has limited value from an intelligence gathering perspective, but we are still taking steps to protect ourselves from the collection of sensitive information by foreign intelligence agencies,” the military added. “We know exactly where it is, where it’s going, and we issue passes to be extra vigilant to mitigate any risk from foreign intelligence agencies.”
The announcement of the artifact’s discovery comes as Foreign Minister Antony Blinken is expected to travel to Beijing this weekend to meet with Chinese authorities and try to ease friction between the two rival countries. Blinken will be the first senior US official to visit the Asian giant since 2018, when relations between the two countries entered a period of sharp deterioration as a result of the open trade war after President Donald Trump’s administration imposed new tariffs on Chinese products had.
Adding to tensions over the measure are differences over Taiwan, the self-governing island with which Washington is ideologically close and which Beijing considers part of its territory; the human rights situation, particularly among the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang Province and Hong Kong; the military activities of the People’s Liberation Army in the waters of the South China Sea and technological competition.
Blinken’s visit follows the meeting of respective Presidents Biden and Xi Jinping in Bali last November, when both leaders met face-to-face for the first time since the American’s arrival at the White House and expressed a willingness to reach an understanding.
Spy balloon detection can complicate this journey. According to military commanders who spoke to the press at the Pentagon, the Defense Department has referred the case to its Chinese counterparts.
Washington regards China as its top security threat and has taken steps to strengthen the US military presence in the Indo-Pacific region to counter the rapid modernization of China’s military. During Austin’s visit to Manila, the US and the Philippines announced an agreement that will give US troops better access to four military bases in the Southeast Asian archipelago. In January, Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida agreed to step up their security cooperation, which will include transforming a US naval unit based on the island of Okinawa.
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