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China is flying a surveillance balloon over sensitive US sites to collect information

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Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include China’s claims that the balloon drifted off course due to winds and to reflect the postponement of Secretary Blinken’s trip to China.

The United States is tracking an object believed to be a Chinese surveillance balloon that has been spotted over U.S. airspace during the past few days.

The U.S. has “very high confidence” the object is a Chinese high-altitude balloon and was flying over sensitive sites to collect information. The balloon was spotted over Montana, where one of the nation’s three nuclear missile silo fields is located at Malmstrom Air Force Base. 

The Air Force had F-22 fighter jets alerted to shoot down the balloon, but ultimately didn’t to avoid people on the ground getting hurt from the debris.

“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,” Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said on Thursday.

“Once the balloon was detected, the U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information,” he added.

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The United States has reached out to China via diplomatic channels. However, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said Beijing was “verifying” the situation but quickly pointed out that China abides by international law.

“I would like to emphasize that until the facts are clarified, speculation and hype will not be helpful to the proper resolution of the issue,” Ning said during a normal press briefing on Friday.

“China has no intention of violating the land territory and airspace of any sovereign country,” she added.

China then issued a statement on Friday stating that the balloon is a civilian airship measuring meteorological data that was blown off course due to winds; weather experts say that this is possible.

secretary Blinken China
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken chats with China Coordinator Rick Waters at the launch event for the Office of China Coordination (known as China House), at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on December 16, 2022. Secretary Blinken was scheduled to soon visit China but postponed his trip due to the incident. (State Department photo by Ron Przysucha)

Congress members from both parties were outraged over China’s response to the situation.

Reps. Mike Gallagher (R-WI.) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), the leaders of a House select committee on China, issued a joint statement saying, “The Chinese Communist Party should not have on-demand access to American airspace.”

“Not only is this a violation of American sovereignty, coming only days before Secretary Blinken’s trip to [China], but it also makes clear that the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) recent diplomatic overtures do not represent a substantive change in policy,” their statement added.

Secretary Blinken has now postponed his trip to China over the incident and will visit the country “at the earliest opportunity when conditions allow,” according to an administration official.

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Prior to arriving at and lingering over Montana, the Chinese balloon flew over the Aleutian Islands before moving through Canada.

Meanwhile, China is trying to purchase land in North Dakota only 12 miles from where the Air Force conducts drone testing. 

The purchase has drawn the interest of U.S. counter-intelligence officials who are worried about China using the land as a surveillance site to spy on U.S. drone tests. The sale is still pending. 

North Dakota’s senators, Republicans John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer, released a letter from Air Force Assistant Secretary Andrew P. Hunter stating that this land purchase must be stopped and called for the purchase to be halted.

“The proposed project presents a significant threat to national security,” the letter read.

Feature Image: Image purported showing the Chinese balloon over Montana. (Diplomat Times via The Billings Gazette)

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Steve Balestrieri

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