WASHINGTON/BEIJING—A Chinese spy balloon has been flying over the United States for a couple of days, US officials said on Thursday, in what would be a brazen act just days ahead of a planned trip to Beijing by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Fighter jets were mobilized but military leaders advised US President Joe Biden against shooting the balloon out of the sky for fear debris could pose a safety threat, advice Biden accepted, US officials said.
The United States took “custody” of the balloon when it entered US airspace and had observed it with piloted US military aircraft, one of the officials told reporters on condition of anonymity.
Separately, 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 United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now,” Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder told reporters.
No physical threat
“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.” Such balloons typically operate at 80,000 feet to 120,000 feet, well above where commercial air traffic flies.
China said Friday it was working to verify the facts around US claims, warning against “hype” over the issue.
“Verification is under way” over the reports, foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told a regular briefing, adding that “until the facts are clear, making conjectures and hyping up the issue will not help to properly resolve it.”
“China is a responsible country and always abides strictly by international law. We have no intention of violating the territory or airspace of any sovereign country,” she said.
“(We) hope that both sides will handle (the situation) with mutual calm and prudence,” she added.
No added intel value
US 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 US official said.
One US official said the balloon was assessed to have “limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective.” Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana is home to 150 intercontinental ballistic missile silos.
Blinken is 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.
Relations between China and the United States have soured in recent years, particularly following then US 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.
US military leaders considered shooting down the balloon over Montana on Wednesday but eventually advised Biden against it because of the safety risk from debris, the official told reporters.