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Chinese spy balloon floating over central US: Pentagon

US authorities say a “surveillance” balloon is floating eastward over the country while Chinese officials say it strayed into US airspace unintentionally.

February 4, 2023
4 February 2023

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed a visit to China after a Chinese balloon was tracked flying across the United States in what US officials have called a “clear violation” of US sovereignty.

The Pentagon said on Thursday it was tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon over the continental United States. 

Officials said military leaders considered shooting it down over Montana on Wednesday but eventually recommended against this to President Joe Biden because of the safety risk from debris.

In a statement on Friday, China’s foreign ministry said the balloon was for civilian meteorological and other scientific purposes and that it regretted that the airship had strayed into US airspace.

White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden was briefed on the balloon flight on Tuesday and there was an administration “consensus that it was not appropriate to travel to the People’s Republic of China at this time”.

The administration was aware of China’s statement of regret “but the presence of this balloon in our airspace, it is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law. It is unacceptable this occurred,” she told a regular briefing.

On Friday, Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said the balloon had changed course and was now floating eastward at about 18,300 metres above the central part of country.

He said it would likely be over the United States for a few more days.

“We know this is a Chinese (surveillance) balloon and that it has the ability to manoeuvrer,” Ryder told a news briefing at the Pentagon, declining to say precisely how it was powered or who in China was controlling its flight path.

The incident sparked a political furore in the United States, and China on Friday expressed regret that a “civilian” airship had strayed into US airspace after being blown off course.

A senior US State Department official told reporters Blinken had nevertheless decided to postpone his trip.

“We have noted the PRC (People’s Republic of China) statement of regret but the presence of this balloon in our airspace is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law, and it is unacceptable that this has occurred,” the official said.

The official added that Blinken had indicated to Wang Yi, director of China’s Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, “that he would plan to travel to the PRC at the earliest opportunity when conditions allow”.

Local broadcaster ABC News earlier cited a US official as saying Blinken did not want to blow the situation out of proportion by cancelling his visit but also did not want the balloon incident to dominate his meetings with Chinese officials.

Republican Senator Tom Cotton had called for Blinken to cancel his trip while Republican former president Donald Trump, a declared presidential candidate for 2024, posted “SHOOT DOWN THE BALLOON!” on his Truth Social media platform.

Postponement of Blinken’s trip, which was agreed to in November by Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping and had been expected to start on Friday, is a blow to those on both sides who saw it as an overdue opportunity to stabilise an increasingly fractious relationship. 

The last visit by a US secretary of state was in 2017.

Ryder told reporters on Thursday the balloon was at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and did not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground. 

One US official added that the balloon was assessed to have “limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective”.

Ryder declined on Friday to specify where precisely the balloon was but as he spoke, the National Weather Service in Kansas City said on Twitter it had received multiple reports across northwestern Missouri of a large balloon.

From military spy satellites in space to advanced electronic intelligence aircraft and submarines, the United States routinely deploys an array of assets to monitor China’s military build-up, analysts and diplomats say. 

China has often complained about surveillance by the United States, including its deployment of ships or planes near Chinese military exercises.

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