WASHINGTON — The Chinese high-altitude balloon recently spotted flying over the northern U.S. may be intended to observe military sites or test America’s own surveillance capabilities, experts familiar with the situation suggest.
“We are confident that this high-altitude surveillance balloon belongs to the PRC,” a senior defense official told reporters Thursday, referring to the People’s Republic of China. The U.S. continues to monitor the balloon, he said.
China issued a statement Friday saying that the balloon is a “civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes” that “deviated far from its planned course,” and that Beijing “regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace.”
The discovery comes days before U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was set to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other top Chinese officials in Beijing. That trip has been postponed.
The U.S. has “communicated to [China] the seriousness with which we take this issue,” through both the Chinese Embassy in Washington and the American Embassy in Beijing, the senior defense official said at Thursday’s briefing.
“We have made clear we will do whatever is necessary to protect our people and our homeland,” the official added.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin convened senior military leadership Wednesday while in the Philippines to discuss how to respond. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, the top American uniformed officer, and Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of the U.S. Northern Command, recommended against shooting down the balloon in light of the risk of debris falling on residential areas.
Officials considered taking action while it was over a sparsely populated area of Montana on Wednesday, but decided against it as the risks to civilians could not be eliminated.
“Most likely, China sent the balloon to test U.S. countersurveillance capabilities,” said Lyle Morris, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis, who was previously country director for China in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. “Since it likely doesn’t have any official markings, Beijing likely thought it could play the ‘plausible deniability’ card.”
Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute, took a different view.
“Using a balloon that was certain to be spotted suggests a high degree of brazenness,” he said. “Beijing’s satellites constantly watch U.S. ICBM fields and other strategic bases, so a balloon seems superfluous.
“I assume Beijing wanted to make a psychological ploy to grab America’s attention to send a message as Secretary of State Blinken meets with Xi Jinping: The U.S. should back off its support for Taiwan and forward defense engagement in Asia before tensions get out of hand,” he said before Blinken’s trip being postponed.
Instances of similar balloon activity have been observed over the past several years, according to the senior official at Thursday’s briefing, but these past incidents were not disclosed to the public.
The difference “has to do with the time that it is taking for the balloon to leave U.S. airspace,” said a source briefed by Washington on the situation. “But I’m very surprised that this wasn’t disclosed previously.”
Morris suggested that Washington might have gone public this time after expressing its concerns to China in private failed to change Beijing’s behavior.
“It’s difficult to control the flight of a balloon over a target with pinpoint accuracy,” said Heigo Sato, professor at Takushoku University in Tokyo. The balloon “was probably staying within a defined area trying to collect signal data.”
The Pentagon said the balloon cannot provide China with intelligence beyond what could already be collected through spy satellites.
“That statement suggests that [the Defense Department] has determined that there’s no need to shoot it down because they’ve already received information from China about what kind of devices” are being carried by the balloon, Sato said.
The balloon incident adds to tensions between the U.S. and China. Rep. Mike Gallagher, the Republican chairman of the newly created House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, released a joint statement Thursday with Democratic ranking member Raja Krishnamoorthi condemning the suspected spy balloon.
“Not only is this a violation of American sovereignty… but it also makes clear that the CCP’s recent diplomatic overtures do not represent a substantive change in policy,” the text reads.
Drew Thompson, visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, says it is possible that China’s People Liberation Army flew the balloon without coordinating with the Communist Party leadership.
“It is also possible that the PLA is trying to torpedo Xi’s effort to improve China’s relations with the U.S. and its like-minded partners including Japan and Australia,” added Thompson.
The Biden administration has maintained pressure on China ahead of Blinken’s potential visit with new efforts to contain Chinese military and economic power.
The U.S. and the Philippines agreed on Thursday to expand American military access to four more bases in the Southeast Asian nation, a vital outpost in the South China Sea. The Biden administration last week secured an agreement by Japan and the Netherlands to restrict exports of advanced semiconductor technology to China, Bloomberg and other media report.
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