Beijing has confirmed that a balloon spotted flying over Latin America is Chinese, two days after the United States shot down a similar device that American officials described as a spy balloon.
China has expressed fury at the US decision to shoot down the device that it insisted was an unmanned weather surveillance aircraft that had veered off course last week.
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That balloon sparked outrage in Washington, which accused Beijing of an “unacceptable violation” of its sovereignty and prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a trip to China that was expected to begin on Sunday.
On Monday, Beijing acknowledged that the latest balloon, spotted by US and Colombian officials flying over Latin America at the weekend, was also Chinese.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing said the device was of “a civilian nature and used for flight tests” and has limited self-steering capability.
“Affected by weather forces in addition to its manoeuvrability being limited, the airship deviated greatly from its expected course, and accidentally entered Latin American and Caribbean airspace,” ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a news briefing.
The Pentagon had said on Friday that another Chinese balloon was flying over Latin America.
In a brief statement the next day, Colombia’s air force said a possible balloon had been detected by its air defence system on Friday morning.
An object with “characteristics similar to those of a balloon” was detected and monitored until it left Colombian airspace, it said, adding that investigations were being conducted in coordination with other countries and institutions to establish the object’s origins.
The first balloon had spent several days flying over North America before Washington said an F-22 fighter jet shot it down on Saturday off the coast of South Carolina.
Pentagon officials described it as a “high-altitude surveillance balloon” and said Washington had taken steps to block it from collecting sensitive information.
General Glen VanHerck, commander of US forces in North America, said in a statement on Sunday that navy personnel were “currently conducting recovery operations, with the US Coast Guard assisting in securing the area and maintaining public safety”.
The US Coast Guard said Monday that it is imposing a temporary security zone in the waters off Surfside Beach, South Carolina, where the military shot down the device.
The move, which is to be enforced through February 18, aims to protect the public “from potential hazards associated with physical objects”. Vessels will be barred from entering the zone without permission from the Coast Guard.
Beijing said the balloon that was shot down was primarily gathering weather data and it had blown off course.
The incident strained already tense relations between the US and China, which have been at odds over several issues, including the status of Taiwan, Chinese claims to the South China sea and an ongoing US push against growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific.
China said the US “seriously impacted and damaged” ties between the two countries by shooting down the balloon, and it lodged a formal complaint with the US embassy in Beijing.
Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng also warned that China “reserves the right to make further necessary reactions”.
On Monday, White House national security spokesman John Kirby said Washington was not seeking confrontation with Beijing. “Nobody wants to see conflict here,” he told reporters.
Kirby dismissed China’s contention that the balloon was for meteorological purposes, however, saying “it strains credulity … that this was some kind of weather balloon that was floating on the winds”.
He said the US had the opportunity to study the balloon while it was aloft and that officials hope to glean intelligence on its operations by retrieving as many components as possible in the Atlantic Ocean. Such information is likely to be valuable, he said.
US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer also said the downing of the balloon “wasn’t just the safest option, but it was the one that maximized our intel gain” because any instrumentation on the airship was more likely to survive a water landing than if it had been shot down earlier over land.
“We sent a clear message to China that this is unacceptable,” Schumer said in a statement, adding that the full Senate would receive a classified briefing on the incident on February 15.
Former US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen was asked on ABC News if he thought elements in the Chinese military might have launched the balloon to disrupt the Blinken visit. “Clearly, I think that’s the case,” he said.
Mullen said the craft was manoeuvrable and rejected China’s suggestion it might have been blown off course. “It has propellers on it,” he said. “This was not an accident. This was deliberate. It was intelligence.”
Blinken’s visit would have been the first to China by a US secretary of state since Mike Pompeo’s in 2018. Plans for the visit were announced after US President Joe Biden held a rare summit with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in Bali in November.
China had issued a rare statement of regret on Friday after the Pentagon first said it was tracking the balloon. But that afternoon, the Biden administration announced that Blinken’s trip would be postponed because it “wouldn’t be constructive” to visit Beijing at this time.
Kirby said on Monday that US officials will decide when Blinken should seek to reschedule the visit.
On the streets of the Chinese capital, resident Li Yize, 23, told the AFP news agency that he thought Washington’s decision to shoot down the balloon was “a way for the United States to show its military power”.
“I think that if China were in the United States’ place and an aerial probe had entered the territory, China would also have dealt with it severely,” Li said.
For his part, an elderly Beijinger with the surname Xu said, “The Chinese are very magnanimous.”
“US military reconnaissance planes often pass by the Chinese coast,” he said. “But China is tolerant. It doesn’t make a big deal of it.”