China expresses regret that 'civilian' airship strays over US
China on Friday expressed regret that what it called a "civilian" airship had strayed into US territory, an incident that sparked a political furor in the United States and raised questions about a planned trip to Beijing by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Pentagon spokesperson Air Force Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told reporters on Thursday that the government was tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon over the continental United States and said it was "traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground."
U.S. military leaders considered shooting down the balloon over Montana on Wednesday but eventually President Joe Biden decided against it because of the safety risk from debris, U.S. officials said on Thursday.
Republican Senator Tom Cotton called for Blinken to cancel his trip, which had been expected to begin this weekend, while Republican former President Donald Trump, a declared presidential candidate for 2024, posted "SHOOT DOWN THE BALLOON!" on his Truth Social media platform.
In a statement on Friday, China's foreign ministry said the balloon was for civilian meteorological and other scientific purposes and that it regretted that the airship had strayed into U.S. airspace.
It said it would continue to communicate with the United States to "properly handle" the unexpected situation. A Chinese government spokesperson said earlier that "China has no intention of violating the land territory and airspace of any sovereign country."
U.S. officials said they raised the matter with their Chinese counterparts through diplomatic channels. "We have communicated to them the seriousness with which we take this issue," a U.S. official said.
Blinken has been expected to travel to China next week for a visit agreed to in November by Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping. It was not clear how the discovery of the spy balloon might affect those plans.
One U.S. official said the balloon was assessed to have "limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective."
The United States took "custody" of the balloon when it entered U.S. airspace and had observed it with piloted U.S. military aircraft, one U.S. official said.
One American official said the flight path would carry the balloon over a number of sensitive sites, but did not give details. Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana is home to 150 intercontinental ballistic missile silos.
Canada's defense ministry said a "high-altitude surveillance balloon" was detected and that it was monitoring a "potential second incident," without giving further details, adding that it was in frequent contact with the United States.
The news initially broke on Thursday as CIA Director William Burns was speaking at an event at Washington's Georgetown University, where he called China the "biggest geopolitical challenge" facing the United States. read more
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, said the spy balloon was alarming but not surprising.
"The level of espionage aimed at our country by Beijing has grown dramatically more intense & brazen over the last 5 years," Rubio said on Twitter.
Relations between China and the United States have soured in recent years, particularly following then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan in August, which prompted dramatic Chinese military drills near the self-ruled island.
Since then, Washington and Beijing have sought to communicate more frequently and prevent ties from worsening.
The Billings, Montana, airport issued a ground stop as the military mobilized assets including F-22 fighter jets in case Biden ordered that 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."
Defense expert John Parachini estimated the size of the balloon was equivalent to three bus lengths.
Billings resident Chase Doak, who filmed it on Wednesday, said at first he thought it was a star.
"But I thought that was kind of crazy because it was broad daylight and when I looked at it, it was just too big to be a star," he told Reuters.
Such balloons typically operate at 80,000-120,000 feet (24,000-37,000 meters), well above where commercial air traffic flies. The highest-performing fighter aircraft typically do not operate above 65,000 feet, although spy planes such as the U-2 have a service ceiling of 80,000 feet or more.
Craig Singleton, a China expert with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that such balloons had been widely used by the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War and are a low-cost intelligence gathering method.