(Featured Photo provided by Javier Zarracina/USA Today)
Just last week, a massive white balloon presumed to be a Chinese spy balloon was spotted off the Californian coast. It had been floating around North America for a few days at that point, having arrived at the Aleutian Islands chain in Alaska before going into Canadian airspace and then back into the United States in Northern Idaho.
On the Thursday before the balloon would be shot down, Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder made a statement saying that the object presented no obvious threat as it wasn’t carrying any weapons. However, according to U.S. officials, what the balloon did carry was tons of surveillance equipment. Ryder stated that “the U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”
Even if the balloon posed no obvious or immediate military threat, it still was dangerous in that along with unlawful international surveillance, it could also expose weaknesses in the U.S.’s air defense capabilities. This is what led to the balloon eventually being shot down. U.S. President Joe Biden had authorized the military to shoot it down as early as Wednesday, however, there were concerns about the balloon’s debris potentially posing a risk to civilians down below, so it was postponed. It wasn’t until Saturday, February 4, that the ballon would be shot down by an F-22 fighter jet just nine nautical miles off the coast of South Carolina.
The debris had spread out over a field of 7 miles, however, the U.S. Navy was already waiting down below to reclaim pieces of the balloon. Even though the balloon did float for several days across the U.S., allowing China to gain some intelligence, U.S. officials stated that they were also given plenty of time to study its balloon, such as what exactly it was doing and for what reason China could be using it.
This incident came at an especially inconvenient time, as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China was preparing to welcome U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. This invitation was to serve as a way to help China’s economy and repair its distraught diplomatic ties with the U.S. However, after the balloon had been spotted, Blinken postponed his visit, and all of the work that China had been doing to mend ties might now be lost.
China has insisted that the balloon was just merely a civilian weather balloon that had been dragged off course due to “limited self-steering” capabilities and Western winds. Beijing has also stated that the balloon was in no part involved with the government and that it will hold the relevant company accountable for its actions while also upholding its rights and interests. It was “an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice” according to China’s Foreign Ministry.
However, the U.S. says that the balloon was without a doubt supposed to be a Chinese spy balloon, and what further action it will take against China is still yet to be determined…