The US has accused China of operating a spy balloon over sensitive locations housing nuclear weapons in Montana, further ratcheting up tensions between the two countries ahead of a visit to Beijing by Washington’s top diplomat.
President Joe Biden had been briefed on possible options for a US response, including using fighter jets to shoot down the balloon, which the Pentagon said on Thursday it had tracked hovering over parts of Montana, a state in the north-west housing nuclear missile silos.
Chinese officials on Friday urged the US against “hyping up the matter”, which comes just days before secretary of state Antony Blinken is due to meet President Xi Jinping in the first visit to China by a Biden administration cabinet secretary.
News of the spy balloon, which US officials said was capable of limited intelligence gathering, comes as the US and Nato warn against China’s expanding military capabilities and its intention to destabilise western states.
Speaking as its discovery was announced, CIA chief Bill Burns said Beijing was the “biggest geopolitical challenge” facing the US in the coming decades, and that competition from China was “unique in its scale”.
Pentagon press secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder said on Thursday that it was “tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now”.
Canada’s defence ministry also confirmed its presence and said it was being “actively tracked” by Norad, the joint North American aerospace agency. Canada also said it was “monitoring . . . a potential second incident” without providing details.
A senior US defence official said Washington was “confident that this . . . belongs to [China]”. “The current flight path does carry it over a number of sensitive sites,” the official said, adding that it had entered US airspace “a couple of days ago” and that it had been tracked using manned aircraft.
After its detection, immediate steps were taken to protect against the collection of important information, the defence official said, adding that the surveillance balloon “does not create significant” opportunities for China to gather intelligence beyond other methods such as low orbit satellites.
The incident comes as the US and Nato sharpen their defence and security policies towards China, a shift that has been exacerbated by Xi’s backing of Russian president Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine.
“Now China is much higher on the Nato agenda . . . China is in many ways coming closer to Nato,” Jens Stoltenberg, the military alliance’s secretary-general said on a visit to South Korea and Japan this week.
“We see China is investing heavily in new modern military capabilities,” he added. “We see them in cyber space, we see what they are developing when it comes to space capabilities, satellites, everything, which are vital for communications on earth.”
On Wednesday, air traffic was temporarily halted in a 50-mile radius over an airport in Billings, Montana, in case the president decided to shoot the balloon down.
Defence secretary Lloyd Austin, who was travelling in the Philippines, convened senior Pentagon officials on Wednesday. They recommended against shooting the balloon down due to the risk debris from it could pose to people on the ground, and its limited intelligence-gathering capabilities.
Chinese foreign ministry official Mao Ning said at a news conference in Beijing on Friday that the government had “noted” reports of the balloon and was “working to understand and verify the situation”.
“Speculating and hyping up the matter before the facts are verified is not helpful for settling it properly,” she said.
The US has observed similar activity over several years, including during Donald Trump’s administration. But, this time it was “appearing to hang out for a longer period of time”, the defence official said.
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