Both US and NATO criticized China over the network of suspected spy balloons like the one shot down off the eastern coast of the US last week.
The White House described the balloon as part of a “fleet” that has spanned five continents and said it had been in contact with allies.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg both raised the issue in a joint press conference in Washington D.C. on Wednesday.
“We already shared information with dozens of countries around the world, both from Washington and through our embassies,” Blinken said. “We’re doing so because the United States was not the only target of this broader program, which has violated the sovereignty of countries across five continents.”
This comes as teams scramble to recover the debris from the large balloon and its payload off the coast of South Carolina.
Blinken said Washington was gaining more information “almost by the hour” and that the US would share relevant findings with Congress and allies around the world.
China insists that the balloon was merely conducting weather research, but the Pentagon described it as a high-tech spying operation. The balloon floated at an altitude far higher than most airplanes and crossed directly over at least one sensitive US military site.
Brigadier General Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters on Wednesday that the balloon was part of a surveillance operation China had been conducting for “several years.”
Ryder said that when similar balloons passed over US territory on four occasions during the Biden and Trump administrations, the US did not immediately identify them as Chinese surveillance balloons.
But he said that “subsequent intelligence analysis” allowed the US to confirm it was an espionage operation and learn “a lot more” about the program.
When pressed about the previous balloons and their flight paths, he would only say that, like the current balloon, “they were over sites that would be of interest to the Chinese.”
Last week, the US had first said it was an unjustified risk to shoot down the balloon when it was over land, citing the danger of falling debris. But the debate continued as it crossed the continent, and the balloon was shot down soon after it floated clear of the eastern coast on Saturday.
China at first apologized for the balloon entering US airspace, saying this was unintentional. But it has also said the balloon’s intentions were benign. And since it was shot down, Beijing also said it would “defend its interests” when sidestepping a question on whether it would demand that the US return any recovered debris.
Despite the concerted criticism from US government agencies on Wednesday, Biden has also voiced confidence that the incident should not have a pronounced negative impact on US-Chinese relations. Though he simultaneously struck a more combative tone in his State of the Union address to Congress.
“Make no mistake about it: as we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did,” Biden told Congress.