China says balloon flying over Montana is not spycraft, while US officials figure out how to best get rid of it

Written by on February 3, 2023

WASHINGTON – China denied Friday that a balloon flying over the United States is a spycraft but a “civilian airship” that blew off course.

The air ship is used for meteorological and other research, the Chinese government said in a statement in which it expressed regret for its “unintended entry” into U.S. airspace.

U.S. officials maintain that it is a Chinese spy balloon and have considered shooting it down.

Shooting it down poses too high a risk to people and property from debris, two U.S. officials said Friday. Other options are being explored, according to the officials who were not authorized to speak publicly.

The Pentagon said Thursday it had spotted what it called a spy balloon drifting over the northern United States. President Joe Biden was briefed on military options but officials decided against taking military action. F-22 fighter jets, the most advanced warplane in the Pentagon’s arsenal, were sent to observe the balloon.

It had been flying over Montana where the Pentagon has nuclear missile silos.

The incident comes at a time of rising tension between the superpowers. Although the trip had not officially been announced, Secretary of State Antony Blinken had been expected to travel to China over the next few days.

A high altitude balloon floats over Billings, Mont., on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. The Pentagon would not confirm that the balloon in the photo was the surveillance balloon. (Larry Mayer/The Billings Gazette via AP)

The latest

  • Where it was: The balloon was over Montana when the U.S. considered destroying it.
  • What it is: The balloon is designed for surveillance, according to the Pentagon. But it likely is unable to collect more information than is available to spy satellites. 
  • Steps taken: While the Pentagon decided against shooting it down, the government took steps to prevent it from collecting sensitive information.
  • Not first time: It’s not the first time Chinese spy balloons have flown over the United States. the official said.
  • Not a risk to aircraft: The balloon is flying so high that it does not present a danger to civilian aircraft, Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, said in a statement.

Why it matters

Tensions have been rising with China, which the U.S. considers its biggest strategic and economic competitor. The nations have clashed over Taiwan, technology, human rights and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Biden administration has been trying to stabilize the relationship, building what it’s called “guardrails” as it normalizes interaction.

After a three-hour meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in November, President Joe Biden said both countries share a responsibility to “manage our differences, prevent competition from becoming anything ever to near conflict, and to find ways to work together on urgent global issues that require our mutual cooperation.”

Xi responded: “The world has come to a crossroads. Where to go from here – this is a question that is not only on our mind but also on the mind of all countries. The world expects that China and the United States will properly handle the relationship.”  

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