The Pentagon says a Chinese spy ball is tracking the US

The Pentagon says a Chinese spy ball is tracking the US


Washington (AFP), February 3, 2023

The Pentagon said Thursday it was tracking a Chinese spy balloon flying high over the United States, just days before a rare visit to Beijing by a top American diplomat.

After President Joe Biden requested military options, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and top military officials were considering shooting down the balloon, a senior defense official told reporters Thursday.

But they decided it would endanger too many people on the ground and because they assessed the balloon did not pose a threat to civil aviation, the official said.

“Obviously, this balloon is for tracking,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official added that the balloon flew over the northwestern United States, where there are sensitive air bases and nuclear missiles in underground bunkers, but the Pentagon does not believe it poses a particularly dangerous intelligence threat.

“We believe this balloon has limited added value in terms of intelligence gathering,” the official said.

The official added that there was “no doubt” the balloon was Chinese, without explaining why.

Asked about the US comments, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maa Ning warned against “spinning” the issue and insisted China would not violate international law.

But she did not give a clear answer whether the balloon was Chinese.

“Inspection is underway,” Mao said.

The discovery of the plane took place just a few days before the planned visit to China by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, whose main agenda item is to resolve tensions between the two states.

Blinken’s visit to Beijing, which follows last November’s meeting between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit, will be the first trip to an Asian country by a top US diplomat since 2018.

In addition to ongoing disputes over trade and intellectual property, relations between the two countries have soured, particularly over democratic Taiwan, which China has promised to reunite with the mainland.

The United States has sold weapons to Taiwan to defend itself, and Biden has said Washington would help defend the island if China attacked.

The State Department declined immediate comment Thursday on whether the incident derailed Blinken’s trip.

– There is no military threat…

A Defense Department spokesman said the balloon entered US airspace “a couple of days ago” but that US intelligence had been tracking it long before that.

Austin, who was in the Philippines, held discussions with top Pentagon officials on Wednesday after Biden asked about options for dealing with the balloon.

Fighter jets were sent to inspect while it was over Montana, during the discussion.

But the Pentagon’s decision was “not to take kinetic action because of the risk to the safety and security of people on the ground from a possible debris field,” the official said.

Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder confirmed the balloon was still being tracked in US airspace.

“The balloon currently flies at an altitude much higher than commercial air traffic. He does not pose a military or physical threat to people on the ground,” Ryder said in a statement.

Canada’s defense ministry said late Thursday it was working with the United States to track the balloon, signaling that other surveillance efforts may be underway.

“Canadians are safe and Canada is taking measures to ensure the safety of its airspace, including monitoring a potential second incident,” the department said, without providing further details or mentioning China.

Beijing has sent surveillance balloons over the United States in the past.

However, this one lingered in US airspace for much longer, a senior US defense official said.

“Nevertheless, we take steps to protect against the collection of sensitive information by foreign intelligence,” the official added.

Austin was in the Philippines this week to boost US defense cooperation, including gaining greater access for Pentagon forces at Philippine military bases, underscoring the US view of China as a threat to East Asia.

A defense spokesman said the “seriousness of the matter” with the balloon had been raised with Beijing authorities.

“We have made it clear that we will do whatever it takes to protect our people on our land.”

Tensions over Taiwan reached a fever pitch last year when Nancy Pelosi, then Speaker of the US House of Representatives, decided to visit the island.

Since Republicans won control of the House in January, questions have been raised about whether her successor would make a similar trip.

“China’s brazen disregard for US sovereignty is a destabilizing act that must be addressed and President Biden cannot remain silent,” current Speaker Kevin McCarthy tweeted Thursday night.

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