The US is currently tracking a suspected Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon that has been flying over the continental United States, defense officials confirmed on Thursday. According to Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, the US government has been monitoring the balloon for several days as it travels over the northern part of the country, and it presents no military or physical threat to people on the ground. The balloon is traveling at an altitude that is well above commercial air traffic.
A senior US defense official, speaking on background, said senior military leaders advised President Joe Biden not to shoot down the balloon due to fears that the debris could pose a safety threat to people on the ground. The official also confirmed that the US government is confident that the balloon belongs to the People’s Republic of China, as instances of this activity have been observed over the past several years. The balloon’s current flight path carries it over several sensitive sites, but the official stated that it does not present a significant intelligence gathering risk and is assessed to have limited value from an intelligence collection perspective.
The US is taking steps to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information, and the balloon is being monitored while over the continental US. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson stated that the balloon entered US airspace accidentally and is a civilian airship used for research purposes, mainly meteorological, but was affected by the Westerlies and deviated from its planned course.
US national security officials have frequently warned about Chinese espionage efforts, and the balloon’s presence in the US comes at a sensitive moment with Secretary of State Antony Blinken expected to travel to Beijing in the near future. Biden has declared China as America’s most significant geopolitical challenge, and competition between the two countries is intense.
Canada is also tracking the balloon’s movements and working with the US, including monitoring a potential second incident. Biden has been briefed on the balloon’s movements, and he requested military options on how to deal with it. However, Biden took the advice of senior military leaders not to order the balloon shot down, and the official emphasized that it does not pose a military threat and the administration acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.
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