'I thought it was a UFO': Suspected Chinese surveillance balloon spotted in US

'I thought it was a UFO': Suspected Chinese surveillance balloon spotted in US
The skies above Billings, Montana. Credit: Unsplash / Wikimedia Commons

A suspected Chinese surveillance balloon has appeared in the skies over the north-western United States, intriguing local residents and exacerbating US-Chinese tensions on the eve of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's visit to China next week.

"The United States Government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now," Pentagon press secretary Patrick Ryder informed reporters on Thursday. He added that the object is "currently travelling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground."

An unnamed senior defence official told CNN that the US is "confident" that the surveillance balloon is of Chinese origin, and that its probable goal is to collect intelligence by flying over sensitive sites in the US. He added that "instances of this activity have been observed over the past several years, including prior to this administration."

The balloon was originally spotted over Alaska's Aleutian Islands; it then headed south through north-western Canada before being seen over the city of Billings, in southern Montana, on Wednesday. Billings is a mere four-hour drive from Malmstrom Air Force Base, the location of one of the US's three nuclear missile silos.

Local Billings resident Chase Doak told the AP that he first spotted the object — which he described as a "big white circle in the sky" — from his office window: "I thought maybe it was a legitimate UFO. So I wanted to make sure I documented it and took as many photos as I could."

Inflaming tensions

US President Joe Biden reportedly decided against shooting down the balloon, after being briefed by Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley about the potential dangers of falling debris to local residents.

Biden's perceived inaction subsequently induced an angry response among anti-China hawks in the US Government.

"China's brazen disregard for U.S. sovereignty is a destabilising action that must be addressed," tweeted Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy. "President Biden cannot be silent."

McCarthy's words were echoed by fellow Republican and Florida Senator Marco Rubio: "A Chinese spy balloon over the U.S. is alarming but not surprising. The level of espionage aimed at our country by Beijing has grown dramatically more intense and brazen over the last five years."

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On Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning warned against any "deliberate speculation" about the nature and origin of the balloon, and claimed that the Chinese Government is currently "trying to understand the circumstances and verify the details of the situation."

She added: "China is a responsible country. We act in accordance with international law. We have no intention of violating other countries’ airspace. We hope relevant parties would handle the matter in a cool-headed way."

The timing of the drone comes at a time of deeply strained relations between China and the US. The US is angered by what it sees as Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea and the country's continued warm relations with Russia, while China is incensed by what it regards as its encirclement by US military bases and American support for Taiwan.

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