Incident comes days before Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to China
WASHINGTON—The U.S. tracked what officials described as a Chinese reconnaissance balloon over the continental states this week, in what would be an aggressive act of intelligence gathering over sensitive American national security sites.
The balloon sighting came days before Secretary of State Antony Blinken was to make a planned trip to Beijing, according to U.S. officials, throwing into question efforts to repair relations between the two powers who are at odds over a host of global and regional issues. The balloon was first spotted on Wednesday by civilians in a commercial airliner, U.S. officials said.
Two Air Force F-22 fighters scrambled from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada to Montana, where the balloon was observed, before the administration decided not to shoot it down.
The U.S. maintains an arsenal of 150 nuclear-armed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. A senior defense official said the U.S. government was taking steps to shield sensitive sites, but added that the reconnaissance systems on the balloon were presumed to have “limited additive value” beyond what the Chinese could gather from their low-earth-orbit satellites.
On Thursday, the State Department declined to say whether it would call off Mr. Blinken’s trip, part of an effort to revive a relationship strained by the countries’ geopolitical rivalry and exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The U.S. wants to use the short visit to address persisting disputes ranging from Taiwan to technology and, officials said, intends to stress the Biden administration’s interest in finding areas of potential cooperation.
The Chinese embassy in Washington didn’t respond to a request for comment. Following the incident, the State Department summoned China’s chargé d’affaires in Washington, Xu Xueyuan, “to deliver a very clear and stark message,” a U.S. official told The Wall Street Journal.
Late Thursday, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) denounced “China’s brazen disregard for U.S. sovereignty” and requested a briefing for senior congressional leaders.
A U.S. official said the administration briefed leaders in the House and Senate on Thursday afternoon and has offered additional briefings on the incident to keep Congress informed.
The incident marked one of the most aggressive Chinese intelligence gathering maneuvers in recent years. The balloon was still drifting over the U.S. and the U.S. was tracking its movement, a senior defense official said. The official didn’t specify its current location or direction of travel.
The balloon “does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground at this time,” said the North American Aerospace Defense Command—a combined U.S. and Canadian organization—in a statement on Twitter Thursday night. “The balloon is currently traveling at altitude well above commercial air traffic.”
It will be over the U.S. for “potentially a few more days,” one U.S. official said. A second official said it is moving southeast.
Defense officials said the U.S. was confident the balloon belonged to China.
“We do not doubt that this is a [People’s Republic of China] balloon, and that is an assessment shared across our intelligence and analytic community,” a senior defense official said.
The balloon has already flown over Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and Canada, a U.S. official said.
One U.S. official said China had previously sent high-altitude surveillance balloons over the continental U.S. “It’s pretty low risk for them,” the official said. U.S. defense officials said this balloon had loitered over the U.S. much longer than in previous similar incidents, which made this “different.”
President Biden was briefed on Wednesday and asked the military to present options, a senior administration official said. The balloon was large enough for its debris to cause damage, and the senior administration official said Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and other senior military leaders recommended the military not “take kinetic action” because of the risk to people on the ground. Mr. Biden heeded that recommendation, the official said.
The Pentagon said the balloon was operating well above the height of commercial air traffic, typically no higher than 40,000 feet, and didn’t pose a threat to people on the ground.
The Federal Aviation Administration declined to comment, referring questions to the Pentagon. Traffic to and from the airport in Billings, Mont., was temporarily halted Wednesday while the Pentagon considered options.
Mr. Austin was in the Philippines Thursday, but convened a meeting during his trip about the incident, the senior defense official said.
If Mr. Blinken’s trip goes ahead, he would be the most senior U.S. official to visit Beijing in more than four years. A top objective of the visit was to restore contacts between senior officials, which dwindled amid the pandemic and disagreements over American support for Taiwan, Beijing’s close ties with Moscow, the U.S.-China rivalry over the control of leading-edge technologies, and a broader competition for global influence.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine became a new flashpoint in the relationship this past year, as China has continued to trade and provide diplomatic and other support to Moscow, rebuffing efforts by the West to starve the Russian government of resources critical to its war effort.
In recent weeks, Washington and Beijing have blamed each other following a near-confrontation on Dec. 21 over the South China Sea between a Chinese fighter and a U.S. Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance plane. Mr. Austin asked the Chinese side to open a dialogue on how to avoid inadvertent confrontations after that episode.
“I would invite my colleagues in China to meet us halfway there and work hard to keep those lines of communication open,” Mr. Austin said in January. But the Chinese haven’t engaged in a top level dialogue with Mr. Austin following that appeal.
The State Department and the National Security Council didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman for the chief of the Canadian Defense Staff declined to comment.
Chinese authorities regularly respond to U.S. concerns about the expanding footprint of the People’s Liberation Army by citing the broad reach of the American military, which they contend undermines global stability and fuels militarization.
The Foreign Ministry said in an extensive report last June that “close-in reconnaissance activities targeting China” had more than doubled in the past decade. The ministry noted that on average, five U.S. naval vessels cruise near China’s shore every day and the U.S. Navy sails through the Taiwan Strait roughly once a month, while U.S. reconnaissance planes have flown some 800 times near China’s territory and repeatedly violated its airspace.
“Eager to stir up trouble in the South China Sea, the U.S. has also encouraged its allies and partners to sail their naval vessels into the South China Sea,” the Foreign Ministry said.
What remains unclear is why the Chinese would fly a high-altitude balloon over the U.S. when it has more discreet means of gathering intelligence.
China has pursued development of modern airships, according to past government announcements.
In May last year, a Chinese government research organization announced a record-breaking flight by a floating airship, which the official state news agency Xinhua said was designed for atmosphere observation. Xinhua said it had reached an altitude of 9,032 meters over Tibet. Developed by the Aerospace Information Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the “Jimu No. 1” type III has a volume of 9,060 cubic meters, Xinhua said.
“The floating airship can collect data at high altitude, which is used to track the regional water cycle and monitor changes in atmospheric composition,” Xinhua said. It said the craft was developed in joint consultations between research institutes in China and designed to observe the effects of climate change.
Also last year, Chinese authorities certified three types of special-shaped hot air balloons produced by Aviation Industry Corp. of China, a government aerospace group. The Trump administration designated AVIC as a military end-user company, and some of its operations have been sanctioned by the U.S. AVIC said the new hot air balloons are for commercial use.
Media in Taiwan last February reported that several weather balloons used by China’s military passed over the island’s territory after leaving mainland China. Taiwan’s state-owned Central News Agency quoted a spokesman for the island’s Ministry of National Defense as saying the balloons posed no security threat and were being used for meteorological observations.
The U.S. has been developing its own high-altitude balloons for decades, for military and commercial users seeking communications and surveillance platforms, especially in areas that lack satellite coverage.