March 5. 2024. 1:43

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China has been spying on US and allies for years using balloon programme, White House alleges

China has been operating a high-altitude balloon programme spying on the US and its allies for many years, the White House alleged on Monday, as it answered questions about a series of mysterious objects shot down by the US military over an eight-day period in North American airspace.

China meanwhile has accused the United States of flying 10 balloons over its territory without authorisation since January 2022 and warned of retaliation over new sanctions from Washington.

The Chinese surveillance programme, according to John Kirby, the US national security council spokesperson, dated back to at least the administration of Donald Trump, which he said was oblivious to it. “It was operating during the previous administration, but they did not detect it,” Mr Kirby said.

“We detected it, we tracked it. And we have been carefully studying to learn as much as we can. We know that these PRC [People’s Republic of China] surveillance balloons have crossed over dozens of countries on multiple continents around the world, including some of our closest allies and partners.”


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The briefing took place amid growing criticism of the Biden administration for not revealing everything it knew about the unprecedented and extraordinary sequence of events beginning with the downing of a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the South Carolina coast on February 4th.

Mr Biden, Mr Kirby said, directed a broad assessment of China’s intelligence capabilities when he took office. In response to recent events, Mr Kirby said Mr Biden had also now directed an inter-agency team “to study the broader policy implications for detection, analysis and disposition of unidentified aerial objects that pose either safety or security risks”.

Mr Kirby was unable to offer new details about the three most recent objects, including the missile strike on Sunday on an unidentified “octagonal” flying object above Lake Huron, Michigan, and other high-altitude objects shot down over Yukon, Canada, on Saturday and Deadhorse, Alaska, the day before.

He said authorities would know more once debris had been recovered from remote locations and analysed. He said all three were much smaller and at a lower altitude than the Chinese spy balloon, but their origin, composition and purpose remained unknown.

“We assessed whether they posed any kinetic threat to people on the ground. They did not. We assessed whether they were sending communication signals. We detected none. We looked to see whether they were manoeuvring or had any propulsion capabilities. We saw no signs of that,” he said.

“[But] while we have no specific reason to suspect that they were conducting surveillance of any kind, we couldn’t rule that out.”

He said all three were shot down in “an abundance of caution to protect the security, our security, our interest and flight safety”.

Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg suggested the objects were part of a “pattern” of surveillance of the US and its allies by China and Russia, and an American air force commander said the US military had spotted Chinese spy balloons in the Middle East in “the recent past”.


Following from his allegation about US balloons having flown over China, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said it was “completely an accident” that the Chinese balloon shot down by the US over the Atlantic Ocean had flown into US airspace.

“It is also common for US balloons to illegally enter the airspace of other countries,” he told journalists in Beijing.

“Since last year alone, US high-altitude balloons have illegally flown over China’s airspace more than 10 times without the approval of relevant Chinese authorities. The first thing the US should do is to reflect on itself and change its own way, rather than slander, discredit or incite confrontation.”

The US shot down three unidentified objects flying over North America in recent days, a week after a fighter plane shot down a Chinese balloon off the coast of South Carolina. Washington has not said what it believes the unidentified objects were, what their purpose was, or to whom it thinks they belonged.

Mr Kirby rejected China’s assertion that the US had flown 10 balloons over Chinese territory over the past year. “Not true. Not doing it. Just absolutely not true,” he had earlier told MSNBC. “We are not flying balloons over China.”

[ US says China balloon could collect intelligence signals ]

Mr Kirby acknowledged the objects shot down could have been equipment belonging to commercial technology firms, rather than surveillance craft.

“There could be completely benign and totally explainable reasons for why these objects are flying around up there. They certainly don’t have to be nefarious at all. There are corporate entities that operate these kinds of things. There are academic research institutions that do this sort of thing. We just don’t know,” he said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a visit to China after a suspected Chinese spy balloon was tracked flying across the United States.

The Biden administration said on Friday that it was adding six Chinese entities to an export blacklist because of alleged links to the balloon shot down over the Atlantic. China, which has denied the balloon was engaged in surveillance, warned it would respond to the latest American action.

“China is strongly dissatisfied with this and firmly opposes it. China will take necessary measures to resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese companies and institutions,” Mr Wang said.

Mr Wang accused the US of “hyping up and intensifying” the controversy over the balloon as an excuse to impose sanctions on Chinese companies and institutions. He said Washington had carried out indiscriminate electronic surveillance around the world, violating other countries’ sovereignty and breaching international law.

“The United States is the world’s largest espionage habitual criminal and surveillance empire,” he said.

[ Balloon row can’t hide reality that US and China need one another ]

China initially played down the significance of its balloon when it was first sighted over US territory, expressing regret that it had blown off course. US secretary of state Antony Blinken cancelled a planned visit to Beijing before the balloon was shot down, an action China condemned as disproportionate.

The sharpening of China’s rhetoric with the US over the issue has not halted Beijing’s diplomatic outreach elsewhere, which will see the country’s top diplomat Wang Yi taking part in the Munich security conference next week.

The standoff over the balloon has interrupted an attempt by Joe Biden and Xi Jinping to put “guardrails” on the relationship between Washington and Beijing, but Mr Kirby said on Monday that had not halted communication between the two capitals.

“We still have diplomatic relations with China. We still have an embassy there. It’s not like all communications between us and the PRC have shut down,” he said.

“We do have the ability to communicate directly with the Chinese leaders, and we have in private set out our concerns over that spy balloon.” — additional reporting Guardian