Defense officials announced on Thursday that the United States is monitoring what is believed to be a Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon that is flying over the continental United States. This discovery has the potential to further strain the already fraught relationship between the United States and China.
The balloon is “traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.” according to a statement made by a spokesman for the Pentagon named Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder. Ryder said that the United States government has been tracking the balloon for several days as it made its way over the northern part of the United States.
A senior official in the United States Department of Defense, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that top military authorities had counseled President Joe Biden not to shoot it down owing to the concern that the debris may represent a safety hazard to those on the ground.
“We are confident that this high-altitude surveillance balloon belongs to the [People’s Republic of China],” the senior defense official said. “Instances of this activity have been observed over the past several years, including prior to this administration.”
The official said that the balloon does not pose a substantial threat to intelligence collection despite the fact that its current flight route takes it over “a number of sensitive sites.” According to the official, the balloon has been evaluated as having “little additive value” from the point of view of the intelligence gathering.
The US, the official continues, saying they are “taking steps nevertheless to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information. We are also tracking what abilities it could have in gaining insights, and continue to monitor the balloon as it was over the continental United States.”
On Friday, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the balloon had mistakenly crossed the airspace of the United States.
“It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes. Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
According to another military source, the US thinks Chinese surveillance satellites in low Earth orbit are capable of giving equivalent or better information, reducing the value of anything Beijing may gain from the high-altitude balloon, which is the size of three buses.
“It does not create significant value added over and above what the PRC is likely able to collect through things like satellites in low Earth orbit,” the senior defense official said.
According to the source, the United States government has been in communication with the government of China via both the Chinese embassy in Washington and the United States diplomatic mission in China.
The presence of the Chinese spy balloon in the United States coincides with a particularly delicate time, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to travel to Beijing in the coming days as part of an important trip intended to follow up on President Joe Biden’s meet and greet with Chinese President Xi Jinping the year before.
On Friday, Brigadier General Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon’s press secretary, claimed that the US Defense Department is aware that the surveillance balloon flying above the northern United States “has the ability to maneuver”.
“The balloon is maneuverable, clearly it’s violated US air space, and again we’ve communicated that fact to the [People’s Republic of China],” Ryder said.
The representative did not provide any further information about the specifics of how it may be controlled. According to Ryder, the balloon is estimated to be around 60,000 feet above the earth at this time.
Sources who are acquainted with the situation say that the movement of the balloon is mostly dependent on the jet stream. On Friday, Ryder also said that the balloon “has changed its course which, again, is why we’re monitoring it.”
On Friday, Chinese government representatives said that the object in the sky was a “civilian airship” meant for research that had “deviated far from its planned course.”
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