U.S. tracking suspected Chinese spy balloon but won't shoot it down
Beijing says it has 'no intention of violating' airspace of another country
The U.S. is tracking a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that has been spotted over its airspace for a couple of days, but the Pentagon decided not to shoot it down due to risks of harm for people on the ground, officials said Thursday.
The discovery of the balloon puts a further strain on U.S.-China relations at a time of heightened tensions.
A senior defence official told reporters at the Pentagon that the U.S. has "very high confidence" it is a Chinese high-altitude balloon and it was flying over sensitive sites to collect information.
One of the places the balloon was spotted was Montana, which is home to one of the U.S.'s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.
China said Friday it is looking into the reports and urged calm, adding that it has "no intention of violating the territory and airspace of any sovereign country."
"China is a responsible country and has always strictly abided by international laws, and China has no intention of violating the territory and airspace of any sovereign country," said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning. "As for the balloon, as I've mentioned just now, we are looking into and verifying the situation and hope that both sides can handle this together calmly and carefully."
Meanwhile, Canada's Defence department said it's monitoring a potential second balloon.
In a statement Thursday night, officials said a high-altitude surveillance balloon had been detected and was being tracked by the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD). It did not say where the balloon was spotted.
The statement said officials from NORAD, the Canadian Armed Forces, the Department of National Defence, and other partners have been assessing the situation and working in close co-ordination.
"Canadians are safe and Canada is taking steps to ensure the security of its airspace, including the monitoring of a potential second incident," the statement said.
It said Canada's intelligence agencies were working with American partners to safeguard Canada's sensitive information.
Canadian officials are aware of the reports about the first balloon, with a senior source with direct knowledge of the situation telling CBC News they are assessing the information and discussing it with their U.S. counterparts.
No threat to people below
U.S. Brig.-Gen. Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon's press secretary, provided a brief statement, saying the government continues to track the balloon.
He said it is "currently travelling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground."
Similar balloon activity has been seen in the past several years, Ryder said, noting that the U.S. took steps to ensure it did not collect sensitive information.
A senior administration official, who was also not authorized to publicly discuss sensitive information, said U.S. President Joe Biden was briefed and asked the military to present options. U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advised against taking "kinetic action" because of risks to the safety of people on the ground. Biden accepted that recommendation.
The defence official said the U.S. has "engaged" Chinese officials through multiple channels and communicated the seriousness of the matter.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the U.S. 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.
The incident comes as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was supposed to make his first trip to Beijing, expected this weekend, to try to find some common ground.
It was not immediately clear if the discovery of the balloon would impact Blinken's travel plans.
Tensions with China are particularly high on numerous issues, ranging from Taiwan and the South China Sea to human rights in China's western Xinjiang region and the clampdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong.
U.S. readied fighter jets
The senior defence official said the U.S. did get fighter jets, including F-22s, ready to shoot down the balloon if ordered to by the White House.
The Pentagon ultimately recommended against it, noting that even as the balloon was over a sparsely populated area of Montana, its size would create a debris field large enough that it could have put people at risk.
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.
The defence official said the spy balloon was trying to fly over Montana's missile fields, but the U.S. has assessed that the balloon has "limited" value in terms of providing China with intelligence it couldn't already collect by other means, such as through spy satellites.
"The fact that this balloon was occupying Montana airspace creates significant concern that Malmstrom Air Force Base and the United States' intercontinental ballistic missile fields are the target of this intelligence gathering mission," wrote Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., in a letter sent Thursday to Austin.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte said he was briefed on Wednesday about the situation after the Montana National Guard was notified of an ongoing military operation taking place in the state's airspace.
"From the spy balloon to the Chinese Communist Party spying on Americans through TikTok to CCP-linked companies buying American farmland, I'm deeply troubled by the constant stream of alarming developments for our national security," Gianforte said in a statement.
All air traffic at Billings-Logan International Airport in Billings, Mont., was halted from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. local time on Wednesday as the military provided options to the White House.
A photograph of a large white balloon lingering over the area was captured by the Billings Gazette, but the Pentagon would not confirm if that was the surveillance balloon. The balloon could be seen drifting in and out of clouds and had what appeared to be a solar array hanging from the bottom, said Gazette photographer Larry Mayer.
With files from CBC's Katie Simpson and Reuters