Washington/Beijing: A suspected Chinese spy balloon, said to be the size of three buses, was spotted over the United States’ airspace, the Pentagon has said, a development that is likely to further strain the already tense bilateral ties ahead of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Beijing.
Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said the US government has been tracking the balloon for several days as it made its way over the northern United States and flying over sensitive installations.
He told reporters on Thursday that the balloon was “travelling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.” “NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) continues to track and monitor it closely,” he said, adding the balloon was spotted over Montana on Thursday and is “said to be the size of three buses”.
Montana, a sparsely populated state, is home to one of only three nuclear missile silo fields in the US, at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
“Once the balloon was detected, the US government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information,” Ryder said.
He said the balloon is travelling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.
US President Joe Biden has been briefed about the incident, a senior defence official said, adding the Pentagon is exploring various options.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Mark Milley and US Northern Command Gen Glen VanHerck have recommended not to “take kinetic action” because of the potential risk to the safety and security of people on the ground from the possible debris field, officials said.
The US government has engaged with the Chinese government both through the Chinese embassy in Washington and the US diplomatic mission in China.
US national security officials have constantly warned about growing Chinese espionage efforts and the balloon’s presence in the US comes at a sensitive moment with Secretary of State Blinken expected to travel to Beijing next week, a significant trip meant to follow up on President Joe Biden’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping last year in November in Bali, Indonesia.
Biden has declared China “America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge” and competition between the two major powers is growing.
China said Friday it is working to verify reports that a Chinese spy balloon is travelling over the United States.
“Verification is under way,” foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters in Beijing. She urged calm “until the facts are clear.” “China is a responsible country and always abides strictly by international law. We have no intention of violating the territory or airspace of any sovereign country,” she said. “We hope relevant parties would handle the matter in a cool-headed way,” she added.