Chinese spy balloon ‘transits’ Latin America after first craft flies over U.S.

China issued a rare statement of regret over the first balloon and blamed winds for pushing what it called a civilian airship into U.S. airspace

Updated - February 09, 2023 12:20 pm IST

Published - February 04, 2023 08:14 am IST - Washington

A balloon floats over Columbia, Missouri on February 3, 2023. A huge, high-altitude Chinese balloon sailed across the U.S. on Friday, drawing severe Pentagon accusations of spying despite China’s firm denials.

A balloon floats over Columbia, Missouri on February 3, 2023. A huge, high-altitude Chinese balloon sailed across the U.S. on Friday, drawing severe Pentagon accusations of spying despite China’s firm denials. | Photo Credit: AP

A Chinese spy balloon has been spotted over Latin America, the Pentagon said on February 3, a day after a similar craft was seen in U.S. skies, prompting the scrapping of a rare trip to Beijing by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The Pentagon said the first balloon was now heading eastwards over the central United States, adding it was not being shot down for safety reasons.

Later Friday, Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder said, “We are seeing reports of a balloon transiting Latin America.”

“We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” he added, without specifying its exact location.

Moments before Mr. Blinken’s decision to cancel his trip — aimed at easing tensions between the two countries — China issued a rare statement of regret over the first balloon and blamed winds for pushing what it called a civilian airship into U.S. airspace.

But President Joe Biden’s administration described it as a maneuverable “surveillance balloon”.

With the rival Republican Party already on the offensive, Mr. Blinken postponed a two-day visit that was to have started on Sunday.

In a telephone call with senior Chinese official Wang Yi, Mr. Blinken said he “made clear that the presence of this surveillance balloon in U.S. airspace is a clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law, that it’s an irresponsible act.”

Mr. Blinken said, however, that he told Mr. Wang that “the United States is committed to diplomatic engagement with China and that I plan to visit Beijing when conditions allow”.

“The first step is getting the surveillance asset out of our airspace. That’s what we’re focused on,” Mr. Blinken told reporters.

According to Chinese state news agency Xinhua, Mr. Wang said the two discussed the incident “in a calm and professional manner.”

“China is a responsible country and has always strictly abided by international law,” Xinhua quoted Mr. Wang as telling Mr. Blinken.

“We do not accept any groundless speculation and hype,” he said, calling both sides to “avoid misjudgments and manage divergence.”

‘Pretext to attack China’

On Saturday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry released a statement addressing Mr. Blinken’s announcement that his trip would not go ahead.

“Some politicians and media in the United States used the [balloon] incident as a pretext to attack and smear China,” it said.

The statement further added in regard to Mr. Blinken’s trip, which had been widely publicised in the United States: “As a matter of fact, neither China nor the United States has announced any visit.

“It is the United States’ own decision to release the relevant information and we respect that.”

Mr. Blinken would have been the first top U.S. diplomat to visit China since October 2018, signalling a thaw following intense friction under former president Donald Trump.

Last month, Mr. Blinken said he would use the trip to help establish “guardrails” to prevent the relationship from escalating into all-out conflict.

Republican lawmakers quickly pounced on the balloon incident, casting Mr. Biden — who has largely preserved, and at times expanded, Mr. Trump’s hawkish policies on China — as weak.

“President Biden should stop coddling and appeasing the Chinese communists. Bring the balloon down now and exploit its tech package, which could be an intelligence bonanza,” tweeted Senator Tom Cotton, a prominent hardliner who had urged Mr. Blinken to call off his trip.

“Shoot down the balloon!” added Donald Trump on his Truth Social media platform.

‘Force majeure’ 

After initial hesitation, Beijing admitted ownership of the “airship” and said it veered off course due to wind.

“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 U.S. 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 U.S. side and properly handle this unexpected situation.”

A U.S. defence official said earlier that Mr. 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 defense official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

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.

Bracing for worst

In the Philippines, visiting U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin this week agreed to expand the U.S. military presence there, weeks after a separate troop deal with another regional ally, Japan.

The U.S. military moves show that the United States is preparing for potential conflict over Taiwan, the self-governing democracy China claims as its own, despite diplomatic efforts.

Mr. Biden held a surprisingly cordial meeting in November with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a summit in Bali, where they agreed to send Blinken to Beijing.

A U.S. military officer recently told his forces to be ready for war with China.

“I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me we will fight in 2025,” Air Mobility Command chief General Mike Minihan wrote in a memo, saying that U.S. elections in 2024 would also “offer Xi Jinping a distracted America”.

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