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Pentagon tracking Chinese 'spy balloon' flying over US

A suspected Chinese surveillance balloon flying over Billings, Montana - The Billings Gazette/AP
A suspected Chinese surveillance balloon flying over Billings, Montana - The Billings Gazette/AP

The Pentagon is tracking a Chinese surveillance balloon spotted hovering over continental America, on the eve of the most high-level visit to Beijing by US officials in years.

A senior defence official told reporters that the US believes Beijing is using the high-altitude spy balloon to fly over sensitive sites and collect information.

"Clearly the intent of this balloon is for surveillance," the official told reporters on Thursday.

It came as the director of the CIA warned the West not to "underestimate" Chinese president Xi Jinping. William Burns said the United States knew "as a matter of intelligence" that Mr Xi had ordered his military to be ready to conduct an invasion of self-governed Taiwan by 2027.

The balloon was spotted was the northwestern state of Montana on Thursday night, which houses several air bases and is home to one of the nation's three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

Separately, Canada's defence ministry also said a "high-altitude surveillance balloon" was detected and that it was monitoring a "potential second incident", without giving further details, adding that it was in frequent contact with the US.

China said it was working to verify the facts around the US claims, 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."

A balloon satellite is a satellite that is inflated with gas after it has been put into orbit. It marks one of the most aggressive Chinese intelligence gathering manoeuvres in recent years.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the balloon was not detected first by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), but reported by civilians in a commercial airliner.

One of the places the balloon was spotted was Montana, which is home to one of the nation's three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base - Tristan Day/US Air Force via AP
One of the places the balloon was spotted was Montana, which is home to one of the nation's three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base - Tristan Day/US Air Force via AP

The senior defence official said the US did ready fighter jets, including F-22s, to shoot down the balloon if ordered to by the White House.

President Joe Biden, who was briefed earlier this week, proposed the high-altitude balloon be shot down, however the Pentagon opposed the move, fearing civilian casualties.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin convened a meeting of senior Pentagon officials on Wednesday to discuss the balloon incident.

Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, provided a brief statement on the issue, saying the government continues to track the balloon. He said it 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."

He said similar balloon activity has been seen in the past several years. He added that the US took steps to ensure it did not collect sensitive information, but declined to say how.

The defence official said the US has "engaged" Chinese officials through multiple channels and communicated the seriousness of the matter.

This type of activity is not unprecedented, the senior defence official said, with China flying stratospheric balloons like this before, but the difference this time is the balloon is staying over the US longer than usual.

Montana Govenor Greg Gianforte said he was briefed Wednesday about the situation after the Montana National Guard was notified of an ongoing military operation taking place in Montana airspace, according to a statement.

"From the spy balloon to the Chinese Communist Party spying on Americans through TikTok to CCP-linked companies buying American farmland, I'm deeply troubled by the constant stream of alarming developments for our national security," Mr Gianforte said.

Steffan Watkins, a research consultant specialising in tracking ships and planes using open source intelligence, tweeted: “To be absolutely clear, the United States and Canadian governments are letting Chinese reconnaissance balloons fly into our sovereign airspace regularly, and are not telling us about them, or shooting them down. We're being lied to by omission regularly.”

The Pentagon announcement comes days before Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to travel to China. It is not clear if this will affect his travel plans, which the State Department has not formally announced.

US Senator Tom Cotton said Mr Blinken should "cancel his trip to China", adding Mr Biden "must answer why he has not secured US airspace".

Tensions are high between the US and China. The US is expanding its military presence in Asia, in a string of moves aimed at countering Beijing and reassuring Indo-Pacific allies that America will stand with them against threats from China and North Korea.

On Thursday the Pentagon announced it would bolster the US military presence near Taiwan with plans to expand the number of American military personnel in the Philippines.

'Big white circle in the sky'

Pictures also emerged of the balloon hovering above the city of Billings.

From a city office window, Chase Doak said he saw a "big white circle in the sky" that was too small to be the moon.

He took some photos and then ran home to get a camera with a stronger lens to take more photos and video. He could see it for about 45 minutes and it appeared stationary, but Mr Doak said the video suggested it was slowly moving.

The balloon over Billings, Montana - Chase Doak
The balloon over Billings, Montana - Chase Doak

"I thought maybe it was a legitimate UFO," he said.

"So I wanted to make sure I documented it and took as many photos as I could."

Mr Burns, the CIA director, told an event at Georgetown University in Washington on Thursday: "Now, that does not mean that he's decided to conduct an invasion in 2027, or any other year, but it's a reminder of the seriousness of his focus and his ambition.

"Our assessment at CIA is that I wouldn't underestimate President Xi's ambitions with regard to Taiwan," he said, adding that the Chinese leader was likely "surprised and unsettled" and trying to draw lessons by the "very poor performance" of the Russian military and its weapons systems in Ukraine.

Russia and China signed a "no limits" partnership last February shortly before Russian forces invaded Ukraine, and their economic links have boomed as Russia's connections with the West have shriveled.