US tracked a Chinese spy balloon from its launch on Hainan Island on an unusual path.
The US administration claims that Chairman Xi Jinping was unaware of the spy balloon.
When a Chinese spy balloon entered American airspace late last month, the US military and intelligence agencies had been watching it for nearly a week, as it lifted off from its home base on Hainan Island near China's south coast.
Monitors in the United States watched as the balloon settled into a flight path that appeared to take it over the United States territory of Guam. According to several US officials, the craft took an unexpected northern turn somewhere along that easterly route, and analysts are now investigating the possibility that China did not intend to penetrate the American heartland with their airborne surveillance device.
The balloon floated thousands of miles away from Guam over Alaska's Aleutian Islands, then drifted over Canada, where it apparently encountered strong winds that compelled the balloon south into the continental United States, officials said, giving a speech on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence. On February 4, a US fighter jet shot the balloon off the coast of South Carolina, a week after it passed over Alaska.
This second account suggests that the ensuing international crisis, which has heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing, was caused in part by a mistake. Meanwhile, the White House said on Tuesday that three other objects shot down over North America in the last week may not have posed a threat to national security, drawing perhaps the clearest distinction between those flying anomalies and the suspected spy balloon.
According to John Kirby, the National Security Council's strategic communications coordinator, the US intelligence community "will not dismiss as a possibility" that the three craft belonged to a commercial organization or research entity and were thus "benign."
According to officials, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has previously sent spy balloons over Guam and Hawaii to monitor US military installations. The days-long flyover of the continental United States, on the other hand, was novel. According to US officials, it sparked confusion within the Chinese government as diplomats scrambled to disseminate a cover story that the balloon had been blown off course while collecting innocuous meteorological data.
The uproar put Beijing on the defensive. It initially expressed "regrets" over what it claimed was a stray weather balloon. Then it shifted to criticizing Washington for overreacting, and this week it accused the US of launching ten spy balloons over China. The White House has categorically denied the claim. "We're not flying surveillance balloons over China. "I'm not aware of any other craft flying over — into Chinese airspace," Kirby said on Monday.
The balloon was tracked by US intelligence and military agencies as it launched from Hainan Island. Analysts are unsure whether the apparent deviation was intentional or unintentional, but they are certain it was designed for surveillance, most likely over US military installations in the Pacific. In any case, the PLA's incursion into US airspace sparked a political and diplomatic uproar, as well as increased scrutiny of Beijing's aerial espionage capabilities by the US and its allies.
The balloon's entry into US airspace was a violation of sovereignty, and its hovering over sensitive nuclear sites in Montana was no accident, officials said, raising the possibility that even if the balloon was inadvertently blown over the US mainland, Beijing apparently decided to take advantage of the opportunity to gather intelligence.
According to officials, the incident is just the latest example of China's deliberate efforts to expand its surveillance capabilities, which range from advanced satellite technology to balloons. The balloon fleet is part of a much larger air surveillance effort that includes sophisticated satellite systems and into which the Chinese government has poured billions of dollars over the years, according to analysts.
“This was a discrete program — part of a larger set of programs that are about gaining greater clarity about military facilities in the United States and in a variety of other countries,” said one senior U.S. official. It appears to be meant to “augment the satellite systems.”
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