A Chinese spy balloon was spotted over Billings, Montana on February 1st. Several individuals including the military, meteorologists, and amateur observers were tracking its location as it floated around the U.S.
China acknowledged Friday that the high-altitude balloon does belong to Beijing, but they referred to the airship as a civilian device "used for scientific research such as meteorology." A senior defense official told CBS News on Thursday that the Defense Department was "confident" that it is a Chinese surveillance balloon.
Senior defense officials said earlier on Friday morning that the balloon was moving southeast slowly from Montana and towards northwest Missouri and the Kansas City area. It was also stated that the balloon is flying at about 60,000 feet which is twice the high of most passenger planes.
By midday on Friday, the balloon had reached Kansas, where it was hovering and sometimes moving at speeds of up to 70 miles an hour, Pentagon officials said. The United States was using its surveillance methods to monitor and study the machine, including deploying aircraft.
The payload of the balloon — that is, the part under the balloon conducting the surveillance — is the size of two to three school buses, but the actual balloon is much larger, according to a U.S. official. The balloon entering United States territory became a diplomatic crisis as media attention mounted on Thursday night and Republican politicians called for President Biden and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken to act.
After gaining intel on the balloon, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken canceled a weekend trip to Beijing on Friday. Blinken said it was an “irresponsible act” and a “clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law. ” China’s “decision to take this action on the eve of my planned visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have,” he said at a news conference on Friday afternoon.
The balloon’s presence and Mr. Blinken’s announcement added to the rising tensions between the two superpowers. Mr. Blinken had planned to leave Friday night for the trip which would have been the first visit by a U.S. secretary of state to China since 2018.
He had been expected to meet with President Xi Jinping and discuss a wide range of issues. But Mr. Blinken said he called Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official, on Friday and said he was postponing his trip because of the balloon and that he would visit China “when conditions allow.”
Mr. Wang told Mr. Blinken during their phone call that “China is a responsible country and has always strictly abided by international law,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on its website. The brief Chinese summary of their call did not mention the balloon or Mr. Blinken’s cancellation of his trip but suggested China’s leaders believed the Biden administration had blown the incident out of proportion. Mr. Wang, the summary said, urged that both sides must “avoid misjudgments, and manage and control their disagreements.”
Although Pentagon officials said several surveillance balloons have hovered over the United States, none have hovered this long. The only other time a Chinese balloon has flown over the continental U.S. was during a brief overflight of Florida. There have been overflights of Hawaii and Guam. In previous instances, the Chinese have been able to recover the balloon.
CBS News has confirmed that the balloon was eventually shot down by U.S. fighter jets just after 2:30 p.m. ET on Saturday. President Joe Biden had said earlier Saturday, “We’re going to take care of it,” when asked by reporters about the balloon. CBS News has also confirmed that two naval ships, including the USS Carter Hall, which is equipped with a heavy crane for recovery, are in the vicinity of where the balloon fell. Officials had initially advised against shooting down the balloon because falling debris could cause risk to people on the ground, sources told CBS News.
Certain government officials suggest this action of flying a balloon in U.S. territory may be to gain intel, in preparation for China’s future advances. Intelligence shows Chinese president Xi Jinping has instructed his country's army to be "ready by 2027 to conduct a successful invasion" of Taiwan, CIA Director William Burns said this week, though he cautioned that it was not clear whether Xi had decided to use violent force for unification.
"Our assessment at CIA is that I wouldn't underestimate President Xi's ambitions about Taiwan," Burns said, adding that Xi had watched Russian president Vladimir Putin's experience in Ukraine "very carefully," and come away "a little bit unsettled and sobered" by Moscow's performance on the battlefield.
Burns emphasized the importance of accelerating U.S. technological developments and deepening its alliances overseas. Earlier this week, the Pentagon announced it would expand the U.S. military presence in the Philippines, which would allow American troops to be more quickly dispatched to Taiwan. Burns on Thursday said effective deterrence of armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait remained a top priority, especially as tensions in the region have intensified.
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