| 29 May 2024, Wednesday |

Suspected Chinese spy balloon being tracked over the US, Pentagon says

A senior US defence official said Thursday that the US was tracking a suspected Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon that has been flying over the continental United States for a couple of days. The citing of the Chinese spy balloon might prove to be another thorn in US-China relationship.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and top military officials thought about shooting the balloon down over Montana but decided not to pursue with the decision as the debris might endanger people on the ground, a senior defense official told reporters Thursday.

Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said that the Pentagon has been tracking the balloon for several days as it travelled over the northern United States.

“The United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now,” Ryder told reporters.

“We are confident that this high-altitude surveillance balloon belongs to the (People’s Republic of China),” he added.
“The balloon 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,” Ryder said.

Ryder further said that the balloon’s path would carry it over a number of sensitive sites, although the risk of any significant intelligence loss is not currently present. Notably, Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana is home to 150 intercontinental ballistic missile silos.

“It does not create significant value added over and above what the PRC is likely able to collect through things like satellites in low Earth orbit,” Ryder said, referring to the fact that Chinese spy satellites in low Earth orbit can offer similar or better intelligence.

Balloon was over Montana when the officials thought of shooting it down

US military leaders had contemplated shooting it down over Montana on Wednesday, but decided against it fearing safety risk from debris.

The military had even 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.”

Blinken’s visit to China

The news comes just days before US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s expected visit to China. Managing heightened tensions between the two powers is at the top of the agenda.

Blinken’s visit to Beijing will mark the first trip to the Asian country by the United States’ top diplomat since 2018. Last November, Biden had met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit.

Relations between China and the United States have been tense of late, clashing over Taiwan, China’s human rights record and its military activity in the South China Sea.

US officials have conveyed the issue to their Chinese counterparts in Beijing and in Washington.

“We have communicated to them the seriousness with which we take this issue,” the official added.

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