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Chinese balloon was part of years-long spying program, US says

Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recover a high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Feb. 5, 2023. (U.S. Fleet Forces)

The high-altitude Chinese balloon that crossed over the U.S. last week is just part of a years-long surveillance program with Beijing deploying such craft around the globe, the US said, as officials sought to draw new attention to what they say is an increasingly aggressive Chinese spying campaign.

The Chinese spying has gone on for “several years,” sending four balloons over the U.S. alone, a Pentagon spokesman said. In a news conference Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. had briefed dozens of countries about the full extent of the espionage.

“The United States was not the only target of this broader program, which has violated the sovereignty of countries across five continents,” Blinken said at a briefing alongside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Blinken said the U.S. will reveal more about the balloon in the coming days as it collects pieces of the craft, which was shot down Saturday off the coast of South Carolina.

China has rejected allegations of spying, maintaining that the balloon that was seen over Montana last week and was shot down by a U.S. fighter jet off the cost of South Carolina was a wayward weather balloon.

Asked about the balloon sightings, Stoltenberg said it “confirms a pattern of Chinese behavior, where we see that China over the last few years has invested heavily in new military capabilities, including different types of surveillance.” He said that included more spying in Europe.

The comments pointed to efforts by the US and its allies to flesh out details of the incident and assure other countries that the Biden administration’s tough stance — which has spurred new recriminations between the world’s two biggest economies — was warranted.

Blinken said the U.S. has shared information about the balloon “with dozens of countries around the world,” communicating both from Washington and from US embassies. That statement dovetailed with what two people familiar with the matter said was a broad outreach aimed at affirming the U.S.’s certainty about the balloon’s intelligence-gathering capabilities.

The top U.S. diplomat postponed a trip to Beijing set for this week, saying a visit now would send the wrong signal about China’s actions. At the same time, Blinken said the administration wanted to assure other nations that it will manage competition with China responsibly — a nod to anxiety that a prolonged diplomatic spat could spill over and hurt them.

President Joe Biden downplayed fears that the episode had made relations with China any worse.

“No. No,” he told Judy Woodruff in an interview for PBS Newshour on Wednesday evening, when asked if ties between the world’s two largest economies had taken a “big hit.”

“Look, the idea shooting down a balloon that’s gathering information over America, and that makes relations worse? Look, I made it real clear to Xi Jinping that we’re going to compete fully with China but we’re not going looking for conflict. And that’s been the case so far,” Biden said.

The saga is also far from over, with U.S. recovery efforts continuing off of South Carolina. Tensions could rise again depending on the sophistication of surveillance equipment found by U.S. Navy and Coast Guard personnel now combing through the debris.

“We are getting more information, almost by the hour, as we continue to work to salvage the balloon — we’re learning from that and as well we’re learning from what we saw and picked up as the balloon traversed the United States,” Blinken said.

Asked if Chinese leader Xi Jinping was aware of the balloon’s launch and trajectory, Blinken said it didn’t matter. “As to who is responsible for that, China is, and it doesn’t matter on one level which individuals may or may not have been responsible.”

The decision to let the balloon cross the U.S. before it was shot down gave intelligence agencies a unique opportunity to understand the Chinese program and counter threats from similar surveillance activities in the future, Brigadier General Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Wednesday.

“We are confident that what we’ve learned about this program enables us to be able to monitor and be on the lookout” for these activities, Ryder said. He said the intelligence gathered “gets put into a broader library of information.”

Republican lawmakers have criticized the administration for not shooting down the balloon until much later, and officials have repeatedly sought to explain themselves amid the uproar.

The U.S. saw the balloon before it entered U.S. airspace but determined that it didn’t represent a physical threat. The balloon passed over sensitive sites including nuclear-missile silos in Montana, but officials have said, without elaborating, that they were able to neutralize any intelligence risks it posed.

“It’s very difficult to determine why they did this” considering that China can gather more intelligence on the U.S. from its satellites in orbit, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed told reporters on a call Tuesday.

The U.S. will “probably gain more from this intelligence operation than the Chinese” so it’s an “awkward moment” for China, Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, said.


© 2023 Bloomberg L.P

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