WASHINGTON (AFP): US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday scrapped a long-planned Beijing trip aimed at easing escalating tensions between the two superpowers, after the Pentagon said that China sent a spy balloon over the United States.
Moments before the decision, China issued a late-night statement voicing regret over what it called an accident with a civilian airship but the United States was not impressed.
The Pentagon said Thursday it was tracking the balloon which flew far above the western state of Montana and decided for safety reasons not to shoot it down.
After initial hesitation, Beijing admitted ownership of the “airship” and said it veered off course due to the winds.
“The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes,” said the statement attributed to a foreign ministry spokesperson. “The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure,” it said, using the legal term for an act outside of human control.
“The Chinese side will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation.
A senior defense official said that Biden had asked for military options but that the Pentagon believed shooting the object down would put people on the ground at risk from debris.
The balloon has “limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective,” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity. But the official said it was clearly a balloon meant for surveillance.
The United States is also widely believed to spy on China, although generally with more advanced technology than balloons. The northwestern United States is home to sensitive airbases and nuclear weapons in underground silos.
The Pentagon said that fighter jets were flown to examine the balloon. Canada also said it had tracked the balloon. Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder said that, as of Thursday, the balloon was “traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic.”
“It does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground,” Ryder said in a statement.
What are spy balloons?
The high-altitude balloons are the same as weather balloons deployed across the world to monitor changes in the local weather of the region. However, when it comes to spy balloons, their purpose is changed. These balloons operate 24,000-37,000 meters above the ground.
The altitude that these balloons fly at is well above where commercial air traffic flies. Airliners almost never fly higher than 40,000 feet. 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.
According to a 2009 report by the US Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College, the advantages of balloons over satellites include the ability to scan wide swathes of territory from closer in, and to be able to spend more time over a target area. Unlike satellites, which require space launchers that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, balloons can be launched cheaply.
Not a new practice
Spy balloons are not new and have been in use since World War II. Just after the end of the war, the US military started exploring the use of high-altitude spy balloons, which led to a large-scale series of missions called Project Genetrix. The project flew photographic balloons over Soviet bloc territory in the 1950s, according to government documents.
During World War 2, the Japanese military tried to loft incendiary bombs into U.S. territory using balloons designed to float in jet stream air currents. While it did not damage military targets, it did cause civilian causalities.
Why is the matter sensitive?
According to reports, the spy balloon was trying to fly over the Montana missile fields, but the U.S. has assessed that it has “limited” value in terms of providing China with intelligence. It was not clear what the military was doing to prevent it from collecting sensitive information or what will happen with the balloon if it isn’t shot down.