Friday , March 24 2023

Balloon over US airspace is civilian airship: China


BEIJING: China’s foreign ministry has expressed regret over what it called a civilian balloon straying into United States airspace.

In a statement on Friday, the ministry said the balloon suspected by the US of conducting surveillance was a civilian “airship” used for research, mainly for meteorological purposes.

The statement said the airship has limited steering capability and “deviated far from its planned course” because of winds.

The Pentagon had earlier said it was “tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon”. It decided not to shoot down the balloon, which was potentially flying over sensitive sites, because of concerns of hurting people on the ground.

Reporting from the White House in Washington DC, journalist Kimberly Halkett said that the balloon was first spotted by bystanders in the state of Montana.

“It was spotted by people on the ground who were wondering what was in the sky. That is how the US government first learned about this, incredibly,” she said. “It was then that the US government started tracking it.”

“There are going to have to be some answers as to why it was bystanders who first spotted this and not the military or the US government,” added Halkett.

Trip to Beijing

The news came as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was expected to make his first trip to Beijing this weekend. The visit has not been formally announced, and it was not immediately clear if the balloon’s discovery would affect his travel plans.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said she had no information on the trip. But she said China has “no intention of violating the territory and airspace of any sovereign country” and urged calm while the facts are established.

Blinken would be the highest-ranking member of President Joe Biden’s administration to visit China, on a mission to mitigate a sharp downturn in relations between the countries amid trade disputes and concerns about Beijing’s increasingly aggressive stance toward Taiwan and in the South China Sea.

A senior American defense official told Pentagon reporters Thursday that the US has “very high confidence” that the object spotted over US airspace in recent days was a Chinese high-altitude balloon and that it was flying over sensitive sites to collect information.

The official, who had spoken on condition of anonymity, had confirmed that one of the places the balloon was spotted was Montana, which is home to one of the nation’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

The defense official said the US has assessed that the balloon has “limited” value in terms of providing intelligence that couldn’t be obtained by other technologies, such as spy satellites.

It was not clear what will happen with the balloon if it isn’t brought down.

Mao said China was working to understand the situation in the hopes “that both sides can handle this together calmly and carefully.”

“China is a responsible country and has always strictly abided by international laws, and China has no intention of violating the territory and airspace of any sovereign country,” she said.

Previous sightings

A day earlier, Pentagon press secretary Brig. General Patrick Ryder said similar balloon activity has been seen in the past several years and the government has taken steps to ensure no sensitive information was stolen. (Int’l Monitoring Desk)

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