U.S. authorities reported on Thursday that a Chinese spy balloon has been flying over the United States for several days, a bold conduct only days before U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken's trip to Beijing.
Fighter jets were mobilized, but military experts persuaded President Joe Biden not to fire the balloon out of the sky because of concern that debris could pose a hazard to safety; Biden accepted this recommendation, according to U.S. sources.
When the balloon entered U.S. airspace, the United States took "custody" of it. It inspected it with piloted U.S. military aircraft, one of the sources told reporters on condition of anonymity.
In the context of escalating tensions between the superpowers, the episode reminds the extent to which Beijing and Washington have been willing to spy on one other.
"The United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now," a representative for the Pentagon told reporters.
The balloon travels considerably above commercial air traffic and poses no military or physical threat to persons on the ground.
Next week, Blinken is set to fly to China for a visit arranged in November by Vice President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping. It was unclear how the finding of the spy balloon would impact the plans.
The Chinese foreign ministry did not react quickly to a request for comment from Reuters.
Officials from the United States discussed the problem with their Chinese colleagues via diplomatic channels in Beijing and Washington. A U.S. official stated, "We have communicated to them the seriousness with which we take this issue,"
The leading Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, described the spy balloon as troubling but not surprising.
The intensity and audacity of Beijing's espionage against the United States have increased considerably over the past five years, Rubio remarked on Twitter.
Senator Tom Cotton, a fellow Republican, urged Blinken to abandon his trip.
Kevin McCarthy, the Republican speaker of the House, stated that he would request a "Gang of Eight" briefing, a confidential national security briefing for legislative leaders and the Republican and Democratic chairs of the intelligence committees. A U.S. official stated that the Biden administration briefed Gang of Eight officials earlier on Thursday and has promised more briefings.
The announcement was made when CIA Director William Burns spoke at Georgetown University in Washington, where he declared China the "biggest geopolitical challenge" facing the United States. read further
Relations between China and the United States have deteriorated in recent years, particularly after former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's August visit to Taiwan sparked major Chinese military exercises near the self-governed island.
Since then, Washington and Beijing have endeavoured to increase their communication and prevent relations from deteriorating.
Potential safety risk
The official told reporters that U.S. military leaders debated shooting down the balloon over Montana on Wednesday but ultimately advised Vice President Biden against it due to the safety risk posed by debris.
The airport in Billings, Montana, issued a ground stop as the military deployed forces, including F-22 fighter jets if Biden ordered the balloon to be shot down.
"We wanted to ensure we coordinated with civil authorities to empty the airspace around that potential area," the official added.
"However, despite these preventive measures, our military superiors determined that we did not reduce the risk sufficiently. We, therefore, did not take the shot.
The official stated that the balloon's current flight route would take it over several sensitive sites but did not provide specifics. Malmstrom Air Force Base, located in Montana, houses 150 silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles.
A separate U.S. official reported that the surveillance balloon was tracked near the Aleutian Islands and Canada before entering U.S. territory.
Officials declined to disclose the balloon's altitude but confirmed that it was operating above civilian air traffic and below "outer space."
Have you limited intelligence value?
These balloons typically operate at altitudes between 80,000 and 120,000 feet (24,000 and 37,000 meters), much above where commercial air traffic works. Spy planes such as the U-2 have a service ceiling of 80,000 feet or higher, although the highest-performing combat aircraft normally do not operate over 65,000 feet.
Craig Singleton, a China expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, stated that the United States and the Soviet Union utilized low-cost intelligence-gathering balloons extensively during the Cold War.
According to one official, multiple spy balloons have flown above the United States in recent years, but this balloon looked to linger longer than in the past.
"Currently, we assess that this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective, but we are taking steps nevertheless to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information," the official said.
Alexander Neill, a security analyst based in Singapore, stated that while the balloon was likely to irritate China-U.S. relations, it was reasonable of minimal intelligence value compared to other aspects of China's modernizing military.
"China has its constellation of spy and military satellites that are far more important and effective in monitoring the U.S.," said Neill, an adjunct fellow at Hawaii's Pacific Forum think tank. "Therefore, I believe it is reasonable to assume that the intelligence gain is not enormous."