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Chinese balloon part of major spy program, US says

February 9, 2023

The US State Department said the balloon that had flown over the US for days was part of a bigger surveillance program targeting 40 countries.

A large balloon drifts above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina, with a fighter jet and its contrail seen below it
The balloon was struck by a missile from an F-22 fighter just off of South CarolinaImage: Chad Fish/AP Photo/picture alliance

A senior US official said on Thursday that the balloon that was shot down by the US last week was part of a fleet of balloons that Beijing sent over 40 countries on five continents to collect intelligence information.

Beijing has said the balloon spotted over the US last week was for "meteorological" purposes, and strongly condemned its downing.

The US State Department official said in a statement that detailed images showed that the balloon "was clearly for intelligence surveillance and inconsistent with the equipment onboard weather balloons." 

"It had multiple antennas to include an array likely capable of collecting and geo-locating communications," the official added.

The US is confident that the manufacturer of the balloon has a "direct relationship" with the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA), according to the official. 

However, an FBI official later told reporters that the physical evidence from the balloon was so far "extremely limited." 

China denounces 'information warfare'

Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning reiterated that the unmanned balloon was a civilian meteorological airship.

Mao said shooting down the balloon was "irresponsible" and the accusations against Beijing "may be part of the US side's information warfare against China."

The remarks in Beijing on Thursday came before the release of the latest information from the US.

Beijing has not disclosed to which government department or company the balloon belonged.

US-China: What’s behind the growing tensions?

Strained US-China relations?

The incident has increased tensions but the US and China. The Pentagon has said that the Chinese defense minister refused to take a phone call from his US counterpart Lloyd Austin on Saturday. 

Shortly after the balloon was first spotted over the US, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called off a high-stakes visit to Beijing, raising concerns about the already-sour ties between the two countries. 

But when asked whether US-Sino relations had taken a big hit, US President Joe Biden said: "No."  

Michael Clarke, a defense and foreign policy specialist at King's College London, told DW that the damage done was not irreparable. "It's a spat. It's not a crisis," he said.

"The Biden administration wants to make it clear this is a spat. It will pass. And we've got our broader relationship with China to think about. And again, they don't want Beijing to go over the top on this," Clarke said. 

Biden has, however, faced a backlash at home over the incident. 

"Biden was issuing some strong words. They weren't directed at China, they were directed at the Republicans in congress," Clarke said. 

In a rare and swift bipartisan move, the US House of Representatives voted unanimously on Thursday to condemn the Chinese balloon as a "brazen violation'' of US sovereignty.

fb/jcg (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)