Late on February 2, in a hastily arranged press briefing, the U.S. Department of Defense announced that it was “tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now.” The balloon, a senior defense official told reporters, was believed to be from China. “[W]e have very high confidence that this is a PRC balloon. Very high confidence,” the official said.
The next day, Chinese officials confirmed that the balloon did belong to Beijing.
On February 2, U.S. defense officials sought to downplay the severity of the situation. In a formal statement, the Pentagon’s press secretary, Brigadier General Pat Ryder, said, “The balloon is currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic, and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.”
Both Ryder and the unnamed senior defense official emphasized that “this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective,” and that the United States “acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”
They also repeatedly stated that this was not a unique incident, with similar balloons having been observed over the United States in the past. “It is not the first time that you had a balloon of this nature cross over the continental United States,” the senior defense official said. “It has happened a handful of other times over the past few years, to include before this administration.”
What is different this time, the official added, is the length of time the spy balloon has spent in U.S. airspace. The “past number of times it did not loiter over the continental United States for an extended period of time. It’s different.”
According to the Pentagon, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin – traveling in the Philippines at the time – convened a meeting of senior defense leadership, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commander of NORTHCOM, to discuss the situation. The option of shooting down the balloon was discussed, but ultimately rejected “due to the risk to safety and security of people on the ground from the possible debris field,” the defense official told reporters.
The official elaborated later on the thought process: The balloon was not seen to pose a threat, either to people or property on the ground or to air traffic. The U.S. military also believes the balloon does not present a “significantly enhanced threat on the intelligence side.”
“And so given that risk, that profile, we assess that the risk of downing it… wasn’t worth it,” the official concluded.
Even still, the violation of U.S. airspace makes this a serious incident. “We have engaged PRC officials with urgency through multiple channels” to discuss the matter, the official said.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Mao Ning, was asked about the surveillance balloon during her regular press briefing on February 3. “I have noted relevant reports. We are gathering and verifying the facts,” she said.
Mao added, “China is a responsible country and we always act in accordance with international law. We have no intention to violate the territory or airspace of any sovereign country.”
Later on Friday, in a separate statement, the Foreign Ministry confirmed that the balloon was from China, but insisted its entry into U.S. airspace was accidental. The ministry said in a statement that the balloon was “a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes.”
“Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace,” the statement said.
Surveillance flights have long been a sore point in China-U.S. relations, but usually from the reverse perspective: China vociferously objects to U.S. military surveillance flights near Chinese territory, albeit outside its formal airspace. In late December 2022, the U.S. military released rare footage showing a Chinese J-11 fighter conducting an “unsafe intercept” of a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea. The U.S. military claimed its plane had to take “evasive maneuvers to avoid a collision.” In response, China blasted the U.S. for “frequently deploy[ing] aircraft and vessels for close-in reconnaissance on China, which poses a serious danger to China’s national security.”
The United States has always maintained that its flights are in “international airspace,” though China contests the U.S. military’s freedom to maneuver in its littoral zones. A surveillance balloon drifting over the continental United States, however, is by definition within U.S. airspace.
The timing of the surveillance balloon incident is especially curious, given widespread reports that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due to visit China starting on Sunday. It would be his first trip to the country since assuming office in January 2021, and the first visit by a U.S. secretary of state since 2018.
But oddly, as of Friday morning, U.S. time, there has been no official confirmation of the trip in terms of formal statements issued by either the U.S. State Department or China’s Foreign Ministry. Current reporting is based on anonymous U.S. officials seeding stories in the press. China, especially, has repeatedly declined to confirm the visit.
On February 3, in the last regular press conference before Blinken’s reported arrival, Mao was asked three times about the trip. Each time, she responded with some variation of “I have nothing to offer at the moment.”
There were some hopes for a thaw – or, if not a thaw, at least a better-managed freeze – in China-U.S. relations after the first face-to-face meeting between the two presidents in November 2022. But it sure seems like at least some parts of the Chinese government are not entirely receptive to a Blinken visit.
Sending a decidedly non-stealthy surveillance balloon – one easily visible to civilians – over another country’s territory is hardly a warm welcome. Whether the incident was accidental or not, it has already cast a shadow over Blinken’s trip, if it happens.
Update: After this piece was published, the State Department confirmed that Blinken’s trip to China has been postponed indefinitely over concerns about the surveillance balloon. Given the “clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law” posed by the incident, “the conditions are not right at this moment for Secretary Blinken to travel to China,” a senior State Department official said. The official added that Blinken would visit China “at the earliest opportunity when conditions allow.”