The Pentagon says it is tracking a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon spotted over United States’ airspace, reviving tensions between the two powers just days before the top US diplomat’s visit to Beijing.
“The United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now,” Pentagon spokesperson Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told reporters on Friday.
“The balloon 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.”
US officials claimed the balloon was flying over sensitive sites to collect information. There are reports military leaders decided against shooting it down over the state of Montana because of the risk of falling debris.
Montana is home to the Malmstrom Air Force Base, where there are some 150 silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles, including the nuclear-capable Minuteman III.
The US took “custody” of the balloon when it entered its airspace and had observed it with piloted US military aircraft, an official told Pentagon reporters on Thursday on condition of anonymity.
The Pentagon spokesperson said similar surveillance activity has been seen in the past few years, adding the US had taken steps to ensure the balloon did not collect sensitive information.
The US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, while visiting the Philippines, convened a meeting of senior Pentagon officials on Wednesday to discuss the incident.
Republican US House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy said he would request a “Gang of Eight” briefing, referring to a classified national security briefing for congressional leaders, and Republican and Democratic leaders, of the intelligence committees.
The defence official said the US has “engaged” Chinese officials through multiple channels and communicated the seriousness of the matter.
The Chinese foreign ministry in its first reaction said it was working to verify the facts around US claims that Beijing flew a spy balloon over its territory, warning against “hype” over the issue.
“Verification is under way” over the reports, foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told a regular briefing, adding that “until the facts are clear, making conjectures and hyping up the issue will not help to properly resolve it”.