A suspected Chinese spy balloon is under close watch by the US Department of Defense
The United States has been keeping a close eye on a Chinese surveillance balloon that has been hovering in US airspace for several days, prompting the Pentagon to abandon usual protocol to shoot it down due to the risk of collateral damage, according to officials Thursday. The balloon’s presence further complicates already strained relations between the United States and China.
A senior defense official told Pentagon reporters that the United States had “very high confidence” that it was a Chinese high-altitude balloon and had been flying over sensitive sites to collect information. One of the places the airship was spotted was Montana, which is home to one of the country’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.
brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, gave a brief statement about the issue, saying that the government continues to track the balloon. It “currently travels at a much higher altitude than commercial air traffic and does not pose a military or physical threat to people on the ground,” he said.
He said similar balloon activity has been seen in the past several years. He added that the United States had taken steps to ensure that it did not collect sensitive information.
The defense official said the United States had “communicated” with Chinese officials through multiple channels and communicated the seriousness of the matter.
The incident comes as Secretary of State Antony Blinken was supposed to make his first visit to Beijing, expected this weekend, in an effort to find common ground. Although the trip has not been officially announced, both Beijing and Washington have spoken of his imminent arrival.
It was not immediately clear if the discovery of the balloon would affect Blinken’s travel plans.
The senior defense official said the US has already got fighter jets, including the F-22, ready to shoot down the balloon if ordered by the White House. The Pentagon eventually recommended against it, stating that even when the airship was over a sparsely populated area of Montana, its size would create a debris field large enough that it could endanger people.
The official did not specify the size of the balloon, but said it was large enough that commercial pilots could see it despite its height. All air traffic at Billings, Montana, Logan International Airport was put into a temporary ground station Wednesday as the military presented options to the White House. The Billings Gazette captured a photo of a large white balloon stuck over the area, but the Pentagon has not confirmed whether or not it was an observation balloon.
Their concern about this launch was the altitude at which the balloon was flying and the time it remained over a site, the official said, without providing details.
Tensions with China are particularly high on many issues, from Taiwan and the South China Sea to human rights in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang and the crackdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong. Not least on that list of annoyances is China’s tacit support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its refusal to rein in North Korea’s expanding ballistic missile program, and persistent disagreements over trade and technology.
On Tuesday, Taiwan scrambled fighter jets, put its navy on alert and activated missile systems in response to close operations by 34 Chinese military aircraft and nine warships as part of Beijing’s strategy to destabilize and terrorize the island’s self-governing democracy.
Twenty of those planes crossed the central line in the Taiwan Strait that has long been an unofficial buffer zone between the two sides, which separated during a civil war in 1949.
Beijing has also increased its preparations for a possible blockade or military action against Taiwan, which has sparked growing concern among military leaders, diplomats and elected officials in the United States, Taiwan’s main ally.
The observation balloon was first reported by NBC News.
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