( CNN ) - Defense Department sources said on Thursday that the US is following a rumored Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon above the continental United States, a development that may further strain already strained relations between the US and China.
The US government has tracked the balloon for several days as it traveled over the northern United States, according to Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for the Pentagon.
He added that the balloon was "traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground."
According to a senior US defense source who spoke anonymously, President Joe Biden had been instructed not to shoot it down by top military officials out of concern that the debris may endanger civilians on the ground.
The senior defense official declared, "We are convinced that this high-altitude surveillance balloon belongs to the [People's Republic of China]." "This action has been seen in several instances over the previous few years, even before this administration."
The official stated that despite the balloon's current flight route, which takes it over "a lot of sensitive facilities," it does not pose a serious risk to intelligence collection. "From the standpoint of intelligence gathering, the balloon is deemed to have minimal incremental value," the official continued.
The person stated that despite this, the US is "taking precautions to guard against foreign intelligence gathering of sensitive material." We are keeping an eye on the potential insight-gathering capabilities of the balloon and will keep doing so while it is above the US.
A spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Friday that the balloon had unintentionally crossed US airspace. It is a non-commercial airship that is used for research, mostly meteorological research.
Because of the westerlies and its limited capacity to direct itself, the airship strayed far from its intended path. The blimp accidentally entered US airspace as a result of "force majeure," which the Chinese side regrets, the spokeswoman stated in a statement.
According to another military source, the US believes Chinese spy satellites in low Earth orbit can provide comparable or better intelligence, which limits the usefulness of whatever information Beijing may obtain from the three-bus-sized high-altitude balloon.
The senior military source stated that it "does not generate much value added over and beyond what the PRC is likely able to acquire through things like satellites in low Earth orbit."
According to the person, the US government has spoken with the Chinese government both through the Chinese embassy in Washington and the US diplomatic mission in China.
The balloon's presence in the US comes at a sensitive time as Secretary of State Antony Blinken is anticipated to travel to Beijing in the coming days, a significant trip intended to follow up on President Joe Biden's meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping last year. US national security officials have consistently warned about Chinese espionage efforts.
According to Josh Lipsky, senior director of the GeoEconomics Center at the Atlantic Council, it is obvious that the US intended to let China know that it was aware of the balloon before Blinken arrived there.
"It prepares the ground for an extraordinarily contentious encounter between Blinken and Qin Gang, the Chinese foreign minister," Lipsky added. It puts Chinese government personnel in a vulnerable position going into the discussions.
China is considered by Biden to be "America's most significant geopolitical concern," and the rivalry between the two countries is fierce. Recent years have seen a rise in tensions over several topics, including the independent island of Taiwan, China's human rights record, and its military activity in the South China Sea.
The Foreign Ministry of China acknowledged hearing about the event on Friday but cautioned against "deliberate conjecture."
"[We] are attempting to comprehend the issue and confirm the specifics." In response to a question from CNN, ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said: "I'd want to emphasize that until it is known what happened, any willful conjecture or hyping up would not assist in managing the problem."
"China is an ethical nation." We follow international law in whatever we do. We don't intend to trespass into the airspace of other nations. We hope that all parties involved will approach the situation calmly.
The balloon's travels are also being followed by Canada, which said on Thursday night that it is collaborating with its American counterparts and keeping an eye out for any potential follow-up incidents.
After being briefed, Biden followed recommendations not to shoot the balloon down.
According to officials speaking to CNN, Biden and congressional leaders were informed of the balloon's movements, and the president asked for military options for handling it.
The insider emphasized that it did not constitute a military danger and that Biden followed Milley's suggestion not to order the balloon shot down. The official also emphasized that the administration responded "quickly" to prevent the collection of critical information.
A "ground halt" at the Montana Billings Airport and the "mobilization of assets, including F-22s," according to reports from Wednesday, were cited by the top defense official.
The officer explained that the purpose of doing that was to prepare for the possibility of bringing the aircraft down when it was over Montana. "To clear the airspace surrounding that prospective location, we needed to be sure we were working in coordination with civil authorities."
Senior military figures, including Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, finally made the "strong recommendation" against shooting it down owing to the danger it posed to ground personnel's safety.
Why not take it out? "Here, we must balance risk and return," the official added. Therefore, the first inquiry is: Does it constitute a threat, namely physical and kinetic harm, to people living in the US homeland? We conclude that it does not.
Does it endanger commercial aviation? We conclude that it does not. Does it provide a materially increased threat from an intelligence perspective? Right now, our best conclusion is that it does not.
Given that profile, we determine that the danger of removing it is not worth it, even if the likelihood of the debris falling and injuring someone or causing property damage is minimal in a sparsely populated region.
One possible target for Chinese spies is the field of underground Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile silos in Montana.
The Chinese authorities will "continue speaking with the US side and correctly handle this unforeseen issue," the spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated on Friday.
The senior military official stated on Thursday that the US "will have alternatives to deal with this balloon" if the risk level changes.
We have made the Chinese authorities aware of how seriously we regard this matter. However, we have made it clear that we will take all necessary steps to safeguard our nation and its citizens.
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