March 5. 2024. 2:30

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Downed balloon one of a ‘fleet’ of Chinese surveillance devices, says US

China has a “fleet” of surveillance balloons of different shapes and sizes that it has deployed over five continents, US officials have claimed.

The allegations on Wednesday came as salvage work continued off the South Carolina coast for the debris from a high-altitude Chinese balloon a US jet fighter shot down on Saturday after it had crossed the continental United States.

“We’re not alone in this,” said the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken. “We’ve already shared information with dozens of countries around the world both from Washington and through our embassies.

“We’re doing so because the United States was not the only target of this broader programme which has violated the sovereignty of countries across five continents.”

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On Thursday, Japan said cases of suspected balloons flying over Japan had been confirmed, including in the waters off the southwestern region of Kyushu in 2022. Tokyo was exchanging data with the US, a government spokesman said.

A Pentagon spokesman said the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service were working to catalogue the wreckage of the downed balloon and transfer it to the mainland for further examination.

The Pentagon has published photographs of sailors on small navy boats gathering parts of the balloon from the surface, but most of the equipment payload – said to be the size of a regional passenger jet – has sunk to the sea bed.

President Joe Biden said Wednesday that the US was “not looking for conflict” with China despite tensions over the balloon. Asked if the incident had caused major damage to the relationship with Beijing, Mr Biden said: “No.”

The Pentagon assesses that Chinese surveillance balloons flew over parts of the US three times during the Trump administration and once previously under Mr Biden’s tenure, and escaped immediate detection.

One Chinese spy balloon “drifted past Hawaii and across Florida” as it “circumnavigated the globe” in 2019, according to a US air force intelligence account reported by CNN.

At a meeting with Mr Blinken, the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, was asked if he was aware of overflights of other members of the alliance but did not answer directly.

“What we see is that China, over the last years, has invested heavily in new military capabilities, including different types of surveillance and intelligence platforms,” Mr Stoltenberg told reporters. – Guardian