BEIJING — China said on Friday it was reviewing reports that a Chinese spy balloon had flown over sensitive locations in US airspace – a discovery that further strained already strained relations between Beijing and Washington.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning said China has “no intention of violating the territory and airspace of a sovereign country,” and urged calm while the facts are established.
The reports came as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due for his first trip to Beijing this weekend. The visit was not officially announced, and it was not immediately clear if the balloon’s discovery would affect his travel plans. Mao said she had no information about it.
Blinken would be the most senior member of President Joe Biden’s administration to visit China to mitigate a sharp decline in the countries’ ties amid trade disputes and concerns about Beijing’s increasingly aggressive stance on Taiwan and in the South China Sea.
A senior US defense official told Pentagon reporters Thursday that the US has “very high confidence” that the object sighted over US airspace in recent days was a Chinese high-altitude balloon and that it was flying over sensitive locations, to collect information. One of the places the balloon was sighted was in Montana, where Malmstrom Air Force Base is one of the country’s three nuclear missile silo fields. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.
The Pentagon decided not to shoot it down for fear of injuring people on the ground. The defense official said the US assessed the balloon as having “limited” value in terms of providing information that could not be obtained through other technologies such as spy satellites.
It was not clear what will happen to the balloon if it is not brought down.
Mao said China is working to understand the situation, hoping “both sides can handle this together calmly and cautiously.”
“China is a responsible country and has always strictly adhered to international laws, and China has no intention of violating the territory and airspace of any sovereign country,” she said.
A day earlier, Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Gen. Patrick Ryder said similar ballooning activity had been observed in recent years and the government was taking steps to ensure sensitive information was not stolen.
He said the balloon flies well above the altitude at which commercial airliners fly and poses no threat to people on the ground.
Biden was briefed and asked the military to present options, according to a senior administration official, who was also not authorized to publicly discuss sensitive information. The senior defense official said the US had prepared fighter jets, including F-22s, to shoot down the balloon on command.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advised against taking “kinetic measures” because the safety of people on the ground was at risk. Biden accepted this recommendation.
Although the balloon was over a sparsely populated area of Montana, its size would create a debris field large enough to put people at risk.
The defense official declined to reveal the balloon’s size but said commercial pilots could spot it from their cockpits.
The surveillance balloon was first reported by NBC News.
A photo of a large white balloon lingering over the area was captured by The Billings Gazette. The balloon could be seen drifting in and out of clouds, and what appeared to be a solar array was hanging from the underside, Gazette photographer Larry Mayer said.
The balloon’s appearance adds to American lawmakers’ national security concerns about China’s influence in the US, ranging from the proliferation of the hugely popular smartphone app TikTok to the purchase of American farmland.
“China’s brazen disregard for US sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed,” Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy tweeted.
Tensions with China are particularly high on a range of issues, from Taiwan and the South China Sea to human rights in China’s western Xinjiang region to the crackdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong. Last but not least on that list of irritations are China’s tacit support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its refusal to rein in North Korea’s expanding ballistic missile program, and ongoing disputes over trade and technology.
On Tuesday, Taiwan relocated warplanes, put its navy on alert and activated missile systems in response to nearby operations by 34 Chinese military planes and nine warships, part of Beijing’s strategy to unsettle and intimidate the island’s self-governing democracy.
Twenty of those planes crossed the central line in the Taiwan Strait, which had long been an unofficial buffer zone between the two sides that split during a civil war in 1949.
Beijing has also ramped up preparations for a possible blockade or military action against Taiwan, raising concerns among military leaders, diplomats and elected officials in the US, Taiwan’s key ally.
Copp and Baldor reported from Washington. Associated Press news assistant Caroline Chen in Beijing and authors Matthew Lee, Aamer Madhani and Zeke Miller in Washington, DC and Matthew Brown in Billings, Montana contributed to this report.
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