Yesterday the New York Times reported that the United States has detected a Chinese surveillance balloon that has been hovering over Montana for a number of days.
President Biden has chosen, for now, not to shoot it down after a recommendation from Pentagon officials that advised that doing so would risk debris hitting people on the ground.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was about to visit Beijing — the first by an American secretary of state in six years–during which he was expected to meet with President Xi Jinping. The decision by U.S. officials to publicize the discovery appears to put China on notice that we are vigilant. However, in the latest development, and despite China’s efforts to soothe American concerns and play down the incident, the White House has announced that Blinken’s visit will be postponed.
The questions for the public are numerous: is this incursion something new? How concerned should we be? Does it portend even more deterioration for US-China relations?
The Pentagon official said that while it was not the first time China had sent spy balloons to the United States, this one has appeared to remain over the country for longer. While clearly –and literally—an invasion of American air space, and thus a breach of sovereignty, a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the balloon did not pose a military or physical threat and added that it had limited value in collecting intelligence. Another defense official said the Pentagon did not think that the balloon added much value over what China could glean through satellite imagery.
It was unclear what China was looking for in Montana, but the state is home to the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, one of three American Air Force bases that operate and maintain intercontinental ballistic missiles. On Friday morning, they responded, claiming ownership but not nefarious objectives–naturally. “The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly for meteorological, purposes,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry said. “Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course,” he added.
Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters that the balloon was traveling “well above commercial air traffic” and therefore it does not constitute a danger to commercial aviation—and thus, the public.
China has several satellites that orbit around 300 miles above the earth. Like American spy satellites, the Chinese satellites can take pictures and monitor weapons launches, officials said. Both countries have a history of spying on each other; indeed, this is normal statecraft.
The presence of the balloon comes as tensions between Beijing and Washington have been on the rise. On Thursday, the Defense Department said the U.S. military was expanding its presence in the Philippines, as part of what military analysts said was an effort to constrain China’s armed forces and bolster the United States’ ability to defend Taiwan.
“China’s brazen disregard for U.S. sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed, and President Biden cannot be silent,” Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, said in a Twitter post.
A commenter in the New York Times probably said it best: “They spy. We spy. We express outrage. They express outrage. That has been the reality my whole 70+ years. It will be long after I’m gone. Period.”