Chinese Spy Balloon or ‘Civilian Device’?

WASHINGTON — American military officials on Thursday said they had detected a “high-altitude surveillance balloon” launched by China floating in the skies of Montana, causing a diplomatic panic that led Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken to postpone a planned trip to Beijing.

On Friday, Chinese officials declared that the floating orb was a “mainly meteorological” balloon and described its drift into American airspace as caused by “force majeure” — forces beyond a party’s control, which cannot be considered a violation.

The development comes months after President Biden and President Xi Jinping of China met in a high-stakes summit in Bali to publicly declare that neither wanted the fierce competition between their two superpowers to erupt into conflict.

Here is what we know about the balloon.

What happened and when?

NBC News reported on Thursday afternoon that military officials had been monitoring for several days what they had determined to be a Chinese-made spy balloon floating over Montana. The Pentagon held a news briefing hours later.

Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said the United States “continues to track and monitor it closely.”

Better Understand the Relations Between China and the U.S.

The two nations are jockeying for influence on the global stage, maneuvering for advantages on land, in the economy and in cyberspace.

  • Wooing Indonesia: China and the United States are engaged in the strategic battle for influence over the resource-laden nation of nearly 300 million people. So far, Beijing has the edge.
  • The Philippines’ Role: The U.S. military is expanding its presence in the Philippines, a sign that the United States is positioning itself to constrain China’s armed forces and bolstering its ability to defend Taiwan.
  • Investing in Mexico: Alarmed by shipping chaos and geopolitical fractures, exporters from China are setting up factories in Mexico to preserve their sales to the United States.
  • Alliance With Japan: President Biden and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan vowed to work together to transform the Asian country into a potent military power to help counterbalance China.

China’s foreign ministry issued a statement that confirmed the balloon’s origin, but disputed its alleged purpose.

“It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes,” said the statement on the ministry’s website. “Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure.”

Is this a big deal or not?

It is a big enough deal for the State Department to cancel Mr. Blinken’s planned trip without rescheduling it, and for the president to discuss the situation with his military advisers.

A senior defense official told reporters on Thursday that similar balloons had been spotted before, including in previous presidential administrations. The official also said that Mr. Biden had been briefed and had asked to review military options.

The episode illustrated how high the tensions are — and how much distrust remains — between Washington and Beijing.

On Friday, Mr. Blinken, who would have been the first American secretary of state to visit China in six years, told China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, that the balloon’s course was a violation of sovereignty and “unacceptable.”

Some experts have questioned the decision not to send Mr. Blinken.

“We’ve got an important but problematic relationship which could get worse,” said Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “The main purpose of the trip was to put some guardrails on the relationship. To me, this highlights the need for that more than ever.”

Why not shoot the balloon down?

Mr. Biden’s top generals recommended that he not use military force to shoot down the balloon because the debris could harm people on the ground.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and other Republicans have called for Mr. Biden to issue an aggressive response.

“China’s brazen disregard for U.S. sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed, and President Biden cannot be silent,” Mr. McCarthy said on Twitter. Others called for more forceful action.

“SHOOT DOWN THE BALLOON,” former President Donald J. Trump wrote on his website on Friday morning.

How big is the balloon?

Officials would not say how large the balloon was, but the military sent several F-22 fighter jets into the skies of Montana to get an estimate: It is “sizable,” according to the defense official.

On Thursday, ABC News reported that an official had described the balloon as the size of three buses.

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