Defense officials reported Thursday that the US is tracking a suspected Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon over the continental United States, potentially straining US-China ties further.
The US government has been tracking the balloon for several days as it travels over northern states, according to a Pentagon spokesman, Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder. The balloon was “traveling at a higher altitude than commercial flight traffic and did not pose a military or physical threat to people.”
US defense officials had advised President Joe Biden not to shoot it down for fear that debris could pose a safety threat to people on the ground, according to a senior official.
The Senior Defense Official said in a statement, “We are confident that this high-altitude surveillance balloon belongs to the [People’s Republic of China]. Instances of this activity have been observed over the past several years, including prior to this administration.”
The official added, “While the balloon’s current flight path carries it over “a number of sensitive sites,” the official said it does not present a significant intelligence-gathering risk. The balloon is assessed to have ‘limited additive value’ from an intelligence collection perspective”
As one defense official put it, the US believes Chinese spy satellites in low Earth orbit can provide similar or better intelligence, thus limiting the value of Beijing’s high-altitude balloon, which is the size of three buses.
According to the official, the US government engages with the Chinese government through both the Chinese embassy in Washington and the US diplomatic mission in China.
Chinese espionage efforts have been repeatedly warned about by U.S. national security officials, and the balloon’s presence in the US comes at a sensitive time. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to visit Beijing soon; a significant visit meant to follow up on the meeting between President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping last year.
The US clearly wanted China to know it knew about the balloon before Blinken landed, said Josh Lipsky, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center.
Congressmen and Biden have been briefed on the balloon’s movements, and the president has requested military options for dealing with it.
Biden followed Milley’s advice not to shoot down the balloon, and the official stressed that it did not pose a military threat, emphasizing the administration acted “immediately” to prevent sensitive information from being collected.