A high altitude balloon floats over Billings, Mont., on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. The U.S. is tracking a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that has been spotted over U.S. airspace for a couple days, but the Pentagon decided not to shoot it down due to risks of harm for people on the ground, officials said Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023. The Pentagon would not confirm that the balloon in the photo was the surveillance balloon.
Larry Mayer | The Billings Gazette | AP
Beijing urged Washington to remain “cool-headed” Friday, as it investigates reports that a suspected Chinese-operated spy balloon has been hovering over sensitive U.S. airspace.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a press briefing that authorities were still learning about the matter, adding that politicians and the public should withhold judgment “before we have a clear understanding of the facts.”
“We have noticed relevant reports and are learning about this matter. What I want to emphasize is that speculation and conjecture are not conducive to a proper settlement of the matter before the matter is clarified,” Mao said, via an NBC translation.
The U.S. accused China Thursday of operating what it said was a possible surveillance balloon over sensitive locations that house nuclear weapons in the northern U.S., further escalating tensions between the two superpowers.
We hope relevant parties would handle the matter in a cool-headed way.
spokesperson, China’s Foreign Ministry
“China is a responsible country, and we act in accordance with international law. We have no intention to violate other countries’ sovereignty and airspace,” Mao said, according to a Sky News translation.
“As I said, we are gathering and verifying the facts. We hope relevant parties would handle the matter in a cool-headed way,” she added.
Spotted over Montana
Footage of what appears to be a high-altitude balloon was captured by an eyewitness over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday. CNBC or NBC News could not independently verify the footage or identify the flying object.
It reportedly flew over the Aleutian Islands, through Canada, and into Montana. A senior defense official said the balloon is still over the U.S. but declined to say where it is now.
Following the sighting, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin convened a meeting of senior military and defense leaders and other combatant commanders to review the threat profile of the stratospheric balloon and brief President Joe Biden on possible responses.
Such options included shooting down the balloon. That action was ultimately dismissed because of the potential risk to safety and security of people on the ground from the possible debris field.
A senior defense official said authorities are continuing to monitor the balloon closely and will take “all necessary steps” to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information.
“Currently we assess that this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective over and above what the PRC can do through other means,” the official said. “Nevertheless, we are taking all necessary steps to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information.”
The balloon does not pose a threat to civil aviation because of its altitude, the official added.
Blinken’s Beijing visit
The latest escalation in U.S.-China tensions comes ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s scheduled visit to Beijing this week. Asked if the incident would impact Blinken’s travel to China, Mao said she had “no relevant information so far.”
Blinken was due to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping Sunday during a two-day visit to China — the first such visit by a U.S. secretary of state in nearly six years and the first by a Biden administration cabinet secretary.
The meeting was set by Biden and Xi at the G-20 in Bali in November, in a bid to improve ties that have grown increasingly fraught amid disputes over Russia’s war in Ukraine, trade, Taiwan, human rights and China’s claims in the South China Sea.
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