China Expresses Regret for Drifting Balloon That Alarmed US Military, Leaders
China on Friday expressed regret for a large balloon that floated into American airspace, causing alarm among US national security decision makers, saying it was a “civilian airship” that drifted off course.
The Chinese foreign ministry said the aircraft has “limited self-steering” capabilities and that it had “deviated from its planned course.” It described the balloon as “used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes.”
The balloon, spotted over parts of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, Canada and the northwestern US earlier this week, forced the Pentagon to call a hastily organized press conference late Thursday afternoon. It revealed that NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, was tracking what appeared to be a “sizable” high-altitude surveillance balloon over the past week believed to have come from China.
The balloon remained over the US as of Friday morning though military officials declined to offer further specifics.
The State Department announced later on Friday morning that Secretary of State Antony Blinken would postpone a planned trip to China next week for meetings with his Chinese counterpart and perhaps President Xi Jinping following the discovery of the balloon.
President Joe Biden was briefed on the Pentagon’s assessment, as were the Joint Chiefs of Staff, though the military ultimately balked at attempting to shoot it down due to fears of debris striking populated areas – causing outrage among some congressional leaders.
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“The Department of Defense owes Congress and the American people a full and accurate accounting of why US forces did not take proactive measures to address this airspace incursion by the People’s Republic of China,” Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the newly appointed top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in an emailed statement late Thursday. “Information strongly suggests the Department failed to act with urgency in responding to this airspace incursion by a high-altitude surveillance balloon. No incursion should be ignored, and should be dealt with appropriately.”
The Pentagon has attempted to downplay the potential dangers posed by the balloon. Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, a spokesman for the Defense Department, said in a statement late Thursday that at that time, it was “traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.”
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, traveling in the Philippines at the time, ultimately made the decision not to shoot it down.
“We had been looking at whether there was an option yesterday over some sparsely populated areas in Montana,” an official speaking on the condition of anonymity told reporters. “We wanted to, you know, take care that somebody didn’t get hurt or property wasn’t destroyed.”
Chinese officials and surrogates have attempted to downplay the significance of the aircraft, with a foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning saying on Friday morning, “China is a responsible country that always abides by international law and has no intention of infringing on any country’s territory and airspace.” .”
“As for the balloon,” she added, “we are looking into and verifying the situation and hope that both sides can handle this together calmly and carefully.”
Others took a more defensive approach, and noted the more sophisticated and reliable methods China has in place for gathering intelligence.
“It’s from China, so what?” Prolific commentator Hu Xijin, who previously served as top editor for the English language newspaper closely aligned with the Chinese Communist Party, wrote on Twitter. “This response is justified. An airship is not a drone, so it is not surprising if it’s blown anywhere by the wind. China doesn’t need to rely on balloons to gather intelligence from the US. Americans better defend China’s reconnaissance satellites.
It remains unclear whether the incident served as some sort of purposeful meddling from China, as it occurred during a time of heightened tensions between the US and Beijing. During his tour of Asia, Austin announced a new agreement with the Philippines for access to four military bases there. The US has stressed they will not house any additional troops there, but the bases will serve as staging areas for exercises and other forms of cooperation – all news that infuriated Beijing, which routinely clashes with the Philippines over disputed maritime territory.