The United States shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon over the weekend. However, many questions remain about U.S. and Chinese actions related to the incident.
The Chinese balloon passed into U.S. airspace over Alaska on January 28. American officials at the time thought it would continue to travel over lightly populated areas.
But two days later, the balloon slowed down over Canada and headed south toward the American state of Idaho. A U.S. official told Reuters, “That’s when we knew this was different.”
U.S. military officials said other Chinese balloons had briefly entered American airspace at least four times. Three times under the administration of former President Donald Trump and once earlier during President Joe Biden’s term.
Last Wednesday, the balloon flew over the western state of Montana, home to intercontinental ballistic missile silos at Malmstrom Air Force Base. U.S. military officials readied a plan to shoot down the balloon. But, the U.S. chose not to act since debris from the large balloon would have spread over an 11-kilometer area putting Americans and property at risk.
Balloon traveled over sensitive areas
The balloon went on to travel near other sensitive U.S. military areas including the U.S. Strategic Command in Nebraska and the Air Force's B-2 bomber airbase in Missouri.
One U.S. official told Reuters the balloon was able to stay over certain areas unaffected by winds. "We saw it do that…It went left, right. We saw it maneuver inside the jet stream. That's how it was operating.”
After public sightings of the balloon, U.S. officials admitted that it was over American airspace. And U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed his planned weekend diplomatic trip to China.
In a statement last Friday, the Chinese foreign ministry said that the balloon was a civilian airship used mainly for weather research. The ministry said the airship had limited “self-steering” abilities and went “far from its planned course” because of winds.
Shooting down balloon
But after those public statements, the balloon gathered speed, heading toward South Carolina's coast. U.S. officials said it was not clear how much of the speed increase was caused by the jet stream or the use of the balloon's steering.
On Friday, Biden approved a plan to shoot down the balloon over water. The move could also help U.S. intelligence recover Chinese equipment for study.
At 1939 UTC on Saturday, a U.S. military jet fired a single missile. The shot punctured the balloon, and the payload came crashing down to the sea. The debris field extended for 11 kilometers, as predicted. Most landed in water just 14 meters deep.
"That will make it fairly easy," a military official said of the recovery operation in the Atlantic Ocean.
Defense officials told reporters that the U.S. was able to collect intelligence on the balloon as it flew over the country. They said the military decided that the technology on the balloon did not give China more intelligence than could have been gathered from satellites. The U.S. said it took steps to reduce the amount of information the balloon could gather as it moved along.
U.S. lawmakers from the opposition Republican Party accused Biden’s Democratic Party administration of giving China intelligence. They said the balloon should have been shot down sooner.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky expressed disbelief. He said there must have been a place between Alaska and the Carolinas where the U.S. could have safely shot down the balloon.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is a Democrat from New York. He said the full Senate will get a report next week on the balloon, including details about its spying abilities. He called Republican criticism political and added that the U.S. had “sent a clear message to China that this is not acceptable.”
Following the downing of the balloon, China sent an official protest over the “U.S. attack on a Chinese civilian unmanned airship by military force.”
The foreign ministry said the incident “damaged both sides’ efforts and progress in stabilizing Sino-U.S. relations.”
Balloons thought to be or known to be Chinese have been seen from Latin America to Japan.
Japanese Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihiko Isozaki spoke to reporters Monday. He said that flying objects like the one shot down by the U.S. have been seen at least two times over northern Japan since 2020. He said Japan continues to study the incidents “in connection with the latest case in the United States.”
On Monday, China confirmed that another balloon recently spotted over Latin America was Chinese. China described it as a civilian airship used for flight tests. A foreign ministry official said the balloon entered the air space of Latin America and the Caribbean Sea by accident.
I’m Mario Ritter, Jr.
Hai Do adapted this report for VOA Learning English from Associated Press and Reuters sources.
Words in This Story
maneuver –v. to move in a skillful or controlled way
jet stream –v. one of several strong currents of air that travel around the Earth’s surface
silos –n. an underground structure used for storing missiles
debris –n. the wreckage of something that has been destroyed
steer –v. to control the direct that something goes in
stabilize –v. to steady something and prevent it from changing too much or getting worse
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