The Pentagon is tracking what it said was a Chinese surveillance balloon over sensitive nuclear sites in the western US, an incident that injected new strain into relations before a planned Beijing visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The balloon was first spotted earlier this week and had been loitering over Montana, where Minuteman III intercontinental-ballistic-missile silos are located, a senior Defense Department official said, adding that it posed no physical or intelligence threat. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin informed President Joe Biden of the incursion, but recommended leaving it alone because of the possible risk of falling debris.
US officials declined to answer several questions about the balloon, including the precise target of its surveillance, its size or other specifications. “It is currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground,” Brigadier General Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters.
Later Thursday, Canada’s defense department said it was tracking “a potential second incident,” without elaborating. The White House declined to comment on the Canadian statement.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said Friday that Beijing was looking into the claims and cautioned the US against “hyping” them up. “We have no intention to violate other countries’ sovereignty and airspace,” Mao told a regular news briefing in Beijing, adding that she hoped “the relevant parties will handle the matter in a cool-headed way.”
The administration disclosed the balloon’s existence just days before Blinken’s expected China trip, the first such-high-level visit to Beijing since before the coronavirus pandemic. The trip was presented as part of Biden’s effort to set a “floor” under the relationship, and it was unclear if Blinken would go ahead.
The senior official said the US had raised the balloon issue with China, and the Wall Street Journal reported that the State Department had summoned the Chinese charge d’affaires. Mao sidestepped questions about whether Blinken’s trip was happening, saying she had no information to provide.
It wasn’t the first time a spy balloon had been spotted over US territory, although this one appeared to be staying longer than in past cases. The technology doesn’t offer China any intelligence-gathering capability beyond what its low-orbit satellites already provide, the US official said.
The official declined to say why the US believed the balloon belonged to China, saying only that US had high confidence in the assessment. The Chinese have for decades complained about the US surveillance by ships and spy planes near its territory, leading to occasional confrontations.
Austin convened a meeting of his top advisers while on a trip to the Philippines on Wednesday and informed Biden. The US defense chief had been in the Philippines as part of a US effort to rally allies and counter what officials believe is China’s increased assertiveness in the South China Sea and toward Taiwan.
Tensions between Washington and Beijing have been running high, with the Biden administration becoming more explicit about its willingness to defend Taiwan in the event of a conflict. Last week, an Air Force general told his staff he believed the US and China would be at war by 2025. China, at the same time, has taken a softer tone, calling for an end to hostile rhetoric.
“The Chinese may see the spy balloon as a bargaining chip that may give them leverage in the talks with the US,” according to Michael Raska, an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. They are aware that Washington is interested in restarting a dialogue on crisis management mechanisms and may be testing the US reaction, he said.