Thursday, March 30, 2023
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Pentagon tracks Chinese spy balloon over US

The Pentagon said Thursday it was tracking a Chinese spy balloon flying high over the United States, reviving tensions between the two countries just days before a rare visit by the top US diplomat to Beijing.

At President Joe Biden’s request, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and senior military officials considered shooting down the balloon but decided it would endanger too many people on the ground, a senior defense official told reporters Thursday.

“The intent of this balloon is clearly surveillance,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official added that the balloon flew over the Northwestern United States, where sensitive air force bases and strategic nuclear missiles are located in underground silos, but the Pentagon doesn’t believe it posed a particularly dangerous intelligence threat.

“We believe this balloon has limited value from an intelligence gathering perspective,” the official said.

The plane’s discovery comes just days ahead of an expected visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to China, where dealing with heightened tensions between the two powers will be high on the agenda.

Blinken’s visit to Beijing, which follows a meeting between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping last November on the sidelines of the G20 summit, will be the top US diplomat’s first trip to the Asian country since 2018.

In addition to ongoing disputes over trade and intellectual property, relations between the two countries have been strained, particularly with regard to democratically-ruled Taiwan, which China has pledged to reunite with the mainland, if necessary by force.

The United States has sold arms to Taiwan to defend itself, and Biden said Washington would help protect Taiwan should China attack.

The defense official said the balloon entered US airspace “a few days ago” but that American intelligence tracked it long before that.

Austin, who was in the Philippines, held meetings with senior Pentagon officials Wednesday after Biden asked about options for handling the balloon.

Warplanes were flown to examine it while it was over Montana while discussions were taking place.

– “seriousness” of the problem –

But the Pentagon’s decision was “not to take kinetic action because the safety of people on the ground is threatened by the potential debris field,” the official said.

Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder confirmed the balloon is still being tracked over US airspace.

“The balloon is currently flying at an altitude well above commercial air travel. It poses no military or physical threat to those on the ground,” Ryder said in a statement.

China has sent surveillance balloons over the United States in the past.

However, it has been in U.S. airspace much longer, the senior defense official said.

“We are still taking steps to protect ourselves from the collection of sensitive information by foreign intelligence agencies,” the official said.

Austin was in the Philippines this week to strengthen U.S. defense cooperation, including broader access for Pentagon forces to Philippine military bases, a move underscoring the U.S. view of China as a threat to East Asia.

The defense official said the “seriousness of the problem” with the balloon had been raised with Beijing officials.

“We have made it clear that we will do whatever is necessary to protect our people in our own country.”

Tensions over Taiwan reached turmoil last year when Nancy Pelosi, then Speaker of the US House of Representatives, visited the island.

After Republicans gained control of the chamber in January, questions were raised as to whether their successor will make a similar journey.

“China’s brazen disregard for US sovereignty is a destabilizing action that needs to be addressed and President Biden cannot remain silent,” current spokesman Kevin McCarthy tweeted Thursday night.

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