A second Chinese “surveillance” balloon is flying over Latin America, the Pentagon said on Friday, at a time of tensions between Washington and Beijing after the detection of a first Chinese balloon in the United States led to the suspension of a visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing.
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We are seeing reports of a balloon transiting Latin America. We are now assessing that it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Defence Department spokesman Pat Ryder said in a statement. The text did not specify its exact location.
The day before, the Pentagon announced the detection of a suspected Chinese spy balloon in US airspace, which it described as an “irresponsible act”, although Chinese authorities “regretted” the intrusion, which they said was “unintentional”.
Blinken postponed a visit to Beijing on Friday and personally told a senior Chinese official. “This is an irresponsible act and a clear violation of US sovereignty and international law that undermines the purpose of the trip,” he told him, according to a statement from a State Department spokesman.
The visit, scheduled for Sunday and Monday, “has been postponed” and will be rescheduled when “conditions are right”, said a US official who requested anonymity. “We have taken note of China’s regrets,” but the presence of this balloon in our airspace “is unacceptable,” he added. Ryder was blunt: “The fact is that this is a spy balloon”.
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The Chinese government initially asked not to blow the matter out of proportion, but on Friday acknowledged that it was indeed a Chinese aircraft. “It is a civilian aircraft used for scientific purposes, mainly meteorological,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said in a statement.
Due to the wind the balloon “deviated from its trajectory”, he said, adding that his country “regrets” that it entered US airspace by “a force majeure”.
However, the foreign ministry also complained that “some politicians and media in the United States” had used “the incident as a pretext to attack and defame China”, in a statement released on Saturday. “China (…) never violated the territory and airspace of any sovereign nation,” it added.
“I can tell you that the balloon is heading east and is currently over the central United States” at an altitude of about 18,000 metres and will remain over US territory for “a few days”, the Pentagon spokesman told a news conference.
He reiterated that the balloon is flying at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and “does not pose a military or physical threat to people on the ground”. The spokesman declined to elaborate on whether the balloon is being moved by the wind or in a controlled manner.
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According to US media, the balloon flew over the Aleutian Islands in the northern Pacific Ocean and Canada before entering US airspace about two days ago. Specifically, it flew over the state of Montana, which hosts nuclear missile facilities, where fighter jets were mobilised and approached it, a Pentagon official, who requested anonymity, said on Thursday.
It was decided not to shoot it down because of the risks posed by potential debris to people on the ground, he added, and considered its ability to gather intelligence “limited”.
The Canadian government added on Friday that it was investigating a “potential second incident”.
“Canada is taking steps to ensure the safety of its airspace, including monitoring for a potential second incident,” the defence ministry said in a statement, without elaborating.
This is not the first time the US military has recorded such an intrusion but on this occasion it has stayed longer in US airspace.