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The Chinese Defense Ministry refused a secure call from the U.S. Secretary of Defense after a Chinese spy balloon was shot down off the coast of South Carolina, according to reports from the Pentagon.
The U.S. finally downed the Chinese craft on Saturday, after it drifted across the North American continent for over a week, passing over several sensitive military installations – including a complex in Montana with 150 intercontinental ballistic missile silos. China claims that the object was a weather balloon that had errantly flown off course, and condemned the U.S.’s “indiscriminate use of force” after it was shot down.
U.S. intelligence, by contrast, has claimed that the balloon was a tool of espionage and was carrying thousands of pounds of sophisticated surveillance equipment. U.S. officials also say that the aircraft was equipped with small rotors and propellers, suggesting that rather than being ‘blown off course’ the balloon was deliberately flown into U.S. airspace and steered toward specific areas of interest.
“On Saturday, 4 February, immediately after taking action to down the PRC balloon, the DOD submitted a request for a secure call between Secretary Austin and PRC Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe,” Brigadier General Pat Ryder said. “Unfortunately, the PRC has declined our request. Our commitment to open lines of communication will continue.”
The balloon was first detected in US airspace on January 28, passing over Alaska, north of the Aleutian islands. Politico reports that the craft was not initially regarded as a threat, although North American Aerospace Command (NORAD) was closely tracking its movements.
By January 30, it had traveled into Canadian airspace — only to move back into American airspace on January 31 when it passed into northern Idaho. President Biden was notified of the incursion by the Defense Department, and US military assets on the ground began to take steps to secure sites and radio communication.
Biden reportedly asked for the balloon to be shot down, but was convinced by military advisors not to do so. The advisors supposedly believed that the risk of debris harming civilians or structures on the ground was too high — analysts reportedly estimated that the debris could scatter across a 7-mile radius. By February 1st, the Biden administration was exploring options for shooting down the balloon over US territorial waters.
Officials became more anxious as the balloon approached Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, one of only 3 locations that store and operate America’s nuclear ICBM systems. Flights out of Billings, Montana were grounded and fighters were scrambled, anticipating a potential order for the craft to be shot down.
Ultimately, the order was not given, and the balloon drifted across the US heartland, with the Biden administration coming under heavy fire as lawmakers and civilian onlookers became aware of the situation.
On February 3, Secretary of State Antony Blinken characterized the incursion as a “clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law,” and subsequently canceled a planned state visit to China.
The spy balloon was shot down on Saturday afternoon by an F-22 fighter jet, near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
The showdown over the spy balloon represents a major flare-up in an increasingly tense relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, which has been heating up steadily for years — growing tensions in the Taiwanese strait have sparked fears that China might attempt an aggressive take over of Taiwan, paralleling Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Recent reports indicate that this is not the first time China has sent spy balloons over US territory, and that the balloon the U.S. shot down is a small part of a larger global espionage program.