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Wednesday May 22, 2024

Suspected Chinese spy balloon triggers diplomatic crisis

By News Desk
February 04, 2023

Ag Agencies

WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed his upcoming trip to China in response to the flying of a suspected Chinese spy balloon over the United States in what marks a significant new phase in the tensions between Washington and Beijing.

The Chinese foreign ministry claimed Friday that the suspected Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon flying over the continental United States is a “civilian airship” used mainly for weather research that deviated from its planned course. The statement from a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry was the first admission that the airship originated in China. “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 Chinese foreign ministry said.

“The Chinese side will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure,” the statement added, using a legalistic term to mean circumstances beyond China’s control. A senior State Department official said Friday that the “clear assessment was that under these current conditions, it wouldn’t be constructive to visit Beijing at this time.”

The official, quoted by US media, said that the US has acknowledged China’s “statement of regret” but that the presence of the balloon in US airspace was “a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law, and it is unacceptable that this has occurred.”

“After consultations with our interagency partners, as well as with Congress, we have concluded that the conditions are not right at this moment for Secretary Blinken to travel to China,” the official told reporters, noting that Blinken was due to depart Friday night for Beijing.

“In this current environment, I think it would have significantly narrowed the agenda that we would have been able to address,” the official added.

Blinken conveyed the decision to postpone the trip -- directly to China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, on Friday morning, a senior State Department official said.

A US military official said the incident is serious because of the “audacity” of the Chinese government, rather than any intelligence gain. While existing satellites are able to gather similar amounts of information, the timing of the spy balloon -- right before the planned Blinken trip -- and the fact that it is flying right over the continental US contribute to the seriousness of this moment, this official said.

Fighter jets were mobilised but military leaders advised President Joe Biden against shooting the balloon out of the sky for fear debris could pose a safety threat, advice Biden accepted, US officials said.

The United States took “custody” of the balloon when it entered US airspace and had observed it with piloted US military aircraft, one of the officials told reporters on condition of anonymity.

The incident recalls the lengths to which Beijing and Washington have been willing to go to spy on each other amid rising tensions between the superpowers.

“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.”

The Chinese foreign ministry did not immediately respond for comment.

US officials brought up the issue with their Chinese counterparts through diplomatic channels in Beijing and in Washington. “We have communicated to them the seriousness with which we take this issue,” a US official said.

US Senator Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, said the spy balloon was alarming but not surprising.

“The level of espionage aimed at our country by Beijing has grown dramatically more intense [and] brazen over the last 5 years,” Rubio said on Twitter. His fellow Republican, Senator Tom Cotton, called for Blinken to cancel his trip.

Republican House 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 Biden administration briefed Gang of Eight staff earlier on Thursday and has offered additional briefings, a US official said.

The news broke as CIA Director William Burns was speaking at an event at Washington’s Georgetown University, at which he called China the “biggest geopolitical challenge” currently facing the United States.

Relations between China and the United States have soured in recent years, particularly following then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August, which prompted dramatic Chinese military drills near the self-ruled island.

Since then, Washington and Beijing have sought to communicate more frequently and prevent ties from worsening.

US military leaders considered shooting down the balloon over Montana on Wednesday but eventually advised Biden against it because of the safety risk from debris, the official told reporters. The Billings, Montana, airport issued a ground stop as the military mobilised assets including F-22 fighter jets in case Biden ordered the balloon be shot down.

“We wanted to make sure we were coordinating with civil authorities to empty out the airspace around that potential area,” the official said.

“But even with those protective measures taken, it was the judgment of our military commanders that we didn’t drive the risk down low enough. So we didn’t take the shot.”

The official said the current flight path would carry the balloon over a number of sensitive sites, but did not give details. Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana is home to 150 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos.

A separate US official said the spy balloon had been tracked near the Aleutian Islands and Canada before entering the United States.

Officials declined to say how high the balloon was flying but acknowledged it was operating above civilian air traffic and below “outer space.”

Such balloons typically operate at 80,000-120,000 feet (24,000-37,000m), well above where commercial air traffic flies. The highest-performing fighter aircraft typically do not operate above 65,000 feet, although spy planes such as the U-2 have a service ceiling of 80,000 feet or more.

Craig Singleton, a China expert of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that such balloons had been widely used by the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War and are a low-cost intelligence gathering method. Spy balloons have flown over the United States several times in recent years, but this balloon appeared to be lingering longer than in previous instances, an official said.

“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.

Singapore-based security analyst Alexander Neill said while the balloon was likely to provide a fresh irritant to China-US ties, it was probably of limited intelligence value compared to other elements China’s modernising military has at its disposal.

“China has its own constellation of spy and military satellites that are far more important and effective in terms of watching the US, so I think it is a fair assumption that the intelligence gain is not huge,” said Neill, who is an adjunct fellow at Hawaii’s Pacific Forum think-tank.