US alleges Chinese spy balloon flew over sensitive military sites

The US says the surveillance balloon flying over its airspace to collect sensitive information, as China says it’s verifying the US claims.

a large, round white balloon against a dark sky in Billings, Montana
A balloon flies in the sky over Billings, Montana on February 1 in this picture obtained from social media. [Chase Doak/via Reuters]

The Pentagon says it is tracking a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon spotted over United States’ airspace, reviving tensions between the two powers just days before the top US diplomat’s visit to Beijing.

“The United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now,” Pentagon spokesperson Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told reporters on Friday.

“The balloon is currently travelling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.”

US officials claimed the balloon was flying over sensitive sites to collect information. There are reports military leaders decided against shooting it down over the state of Montana because of the risk of falling debris.

Montana is home to the Malmstrom Air Force Base, where there are some 150 silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles, including the nuclear-capable Minuteman III.

The US took “custody” of the balloon when it entered its airspace and had observed it with piloted US military aircraft, an official told Pentagon reporters on Thursday on condition of anonymity.

The Pentagon spokesperson said similar surveillance activity has been seen in the past few years, adding the US had taken steps to ensure the balloon did not collect sensitive information.

The US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, while visiting the Philippines, convened a meeting of senior Pentagon officials on Wednesday to discuss the incident.

Republican US House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy said he would request a “Gang of Eight” briefing, referring to a classified national security briefing for congressional leaders, and Republican and Democratic leaders, of the intelligence committees.

The defence official said the US has “engaged” Chinese officials through multiple channels and communicated the seriousness of the matter.

The Chinese foreign ministry in its first reaction said it was working to verify the facts around US claims that Beijing flew a spy balloon over its territory, warning against “hype” over the issue.

“Verification is under way” over the reports, foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told a regular briefing, adding that “until the facts are clear, making conjectures and hyping up the issue will not help to properly resolve it”.

Al Jazeera’s Katrina Yu, reporting from Beijing, said some Chinese experts in their commentary on state media doubted Beijing was floating a surveillance balloon, essentially calling it a “hot air” balloon.

“We know that China and US spy on each other using satellites. Over the past years, China has expanded its satellite arsenal from 250 to 500. And experts have been saying that it’s unlikely that this surveillance balloon will be able to glean any information that satellites do not already know about.”

Purpose unclear

Glenn Carle, a national security expert, told Al Jazeera that the balloon flight was curious.

“They have satellites that are sophisticated and it’s not clear to me what intelligence advantage they could gain by doing this,” said Carle, former deputy national intelligence officer for transnational threats at the CIA. “Perhaps it fits in with the ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy that China has pursued: being aggressive in pursuit of its interests until there is a strong pushback.”

The Pentagon announcement comes days before US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to travel to China. It is not clear if this will affect his travel plans, which the State Department has not formally announced.

Al Jazeera’s Yu said the timeliness of the balloon being found is surprising given that Blinken is scheduled to visit China for high-level talks in a few days.

“These are the most important meetings we have had with US officials since the beginning of the pandemic. And it comes amid China showing conciliatory tones towards the US. The talks are supposed to be a re-setting of very tense ties.”

The US is expanding its military presence in Asia in a string of moves aimed at countering Beijing and reassuring Indo-Pacific allies it will stand with them against threats from China and North Korea. On Thursday, Austin announced an expansion of military cooperation with the Philippines, a longtime US ally in Southeast Asia.

The senior defence official said the US had mobilised fighter jets, including F-22s, to shoot down the balloon if ordered by the White House.

The Pentagon ultimately recommended against such action, noting that even though the balloon was over a sparsely populated area of Montana, its size would create a debris field large enough to potentially put people at risk.

Patrick Ryder at a Pentagon press conference, gesturing from the podium
Pentagon Press Secretary Patrick Ryder has said the balloon does not pose a ‘military or physical threat’ to civilians. [File: Andrew Harnik/AP Photo]

The official said the current flight path would carry the balloon over several sensitive sites but did not give details.

Another US official said the “spycraft” had been tracked near the Aleutian Islands and Canada before entering the US.

In a statement later, Canada’s Ministry of National Defence confirmed that a high-altitude surveillance balloon had been detected and its movements were being “actively tracked” by NORAD, a binational military command with the US.

“Canadians are safe and Canada is taking steps to ensure the security of its airspace, including the monitoring of a potential second incident,” the statement said.

The US official would not specify the size of the balloon but said it was large enough that, despite its high altitude, commercial pilots could see it.

On social media, people near Billings shared photos of pale, round objects high in the sky that were separate from the Moon. The Pentagon provided no visuals.

Spy balloons have flown over the US several times in recent years but this balloon appeared to be lingering longer than in previous instances, the official noted.

Craig Singleton, a China expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said such balloons were seen as a low-cost method of gathering intelligence and had been widely used by the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union during the Cold War.

“The timing of this incident is curious, coming only days before Secretary Blinken’s planned travel to Beijing,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies