On Wednesday, a civilian noticed a large balloon hovering in the skies over Billings, Montana. Montana is home to the massive Malmstrom Air Force Base, a site that houses 150 nuclear warheads. The device first flew over the Aleutian Islands, through Canada and then entered Montana. China has now confirmed ownership of the balloon. They are claiming the balloon is only a civilian airship whose purpose is to gather meteorological research and that it was blown off course unexpectedly and unintentionally by strong winds.
On Friday, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said, “Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure.” In international law, force majeure references a situation where an overwhelming or superior force is at work that is beyond the control of both parties. It frees both parties from any consequences since the change was not controlled by them, but by an unforeseen and uncontrollable power. In this case, the Chinese government is pointing to the Westerlies, a strong wind force that prevails in the winter months.
The Pentagon disagrees with China's explanation. Brig Gen Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary said in a statement on Thursday night, "The United States Government has detected and is tracking a high altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now. Once the balloon was detected, the US government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”
At a press conference on Friday, Brig Gen Ryder said that the US was continuing to weigh its options and described the airship’s presence as an “unacceptable” violation of US airspace.“We are aware of the (People’s Republic of China) statement. However, the fact is, we know that it’s a surveillance balloon.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning initially said on Friday that they were investigating the situation and added that Beijing “has no intention of violating the territory and airspace of any sovereign country.”
Top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi said: “China is a responsible country and has always strictly abided by international law. We do not accept any groundless speculation and hype. In the face of unexpected situations, what both parties need to do is to maintain concentration, communicate in a timely manner, avoid misjudgments, and manage and control differences.”
United States defense forces have not shot the balloon down after determining that the potential damage of cascading debris outweighs the risk of the balloon itself, which they said does not have the ability to bring in more intelligence than spy satellites in low Earth orbit, which China already has in place.
On Friday night, the Pentagon announced the discovery of a second Chinese spy balloon drifting over Latin America.
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