Second spy balloon traced over Latin America, US-China tensions escalate

Beijing alleges the "weather balloon" deviated off course and that U.S. diplomats and media outlets use it as a pretext to "smear" China.
Baba Tamim
China- spy balloon.
China- spy balloon.


The Pentagon has reported the sighting of a second Chinese "spy balloon" traced over Latin America late Friday night.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed his visit to China as another high-altitude Chinese balloon entered U.S. airspace, according to Pentagon.

A day after the first balloon was observed over U.S. skies, Pentagon spokesperson Pat Ryder confirmed, "We are seeing reports of a balloon transiting Latin America."

"We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon," he said. 

The second balloon's precise location was not made public by the Pentagon, but a U.S. official said it doesn't appear to be traveling in the direction of the U.S.

Blinken discussed the balloon's presence in U.S. airspace with China's top diplomat, Wang Yi, and stated that it is a violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law.

He did, however, emphasize the United States' commitment to diplomatic engagement with China.

The U.S. Secretary of State, Blinken's trip to China, which was scheduled to be the first since October 2018, has just been postponed, not canceled.

China claims 'weather balloon' deviated

U.S. officials doubt China's claim that the entry into U.S. airspace was caused by a weather balloon that deviated from its intended path.

"The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes. Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course," said a Chinese statement on Friday.

"The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure [an unstoppable and unpredictable event]." 

The statement added that "the Chinese side will continue communicating with the U.S. side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure."

According to the state department, communication between the U.S. and China is still open. 

The White House added that the balloon does not constitute a military or physical threat and that President Biden and his advisors have decided that Blinken shouldn't visit China this weekend.

Republicans in Congress have lambasted the predicament and accused Biden of showing weakness; some have even demanded that action be taken.

President Biden requested military alternatives, according to the U.S. defense official, but the Pentagon deemed that shooting down the balloon would endanger civilians on the ground.

For a few more days, the balloon is anticipated to continue flying over U.S. airspace, passing over a number of critical locations, including military installations in Montana that store intercontinental ballistic missile silos.

Why balloons? 

When spy satellites are widely available, China's decision to deploy spy balloons, which are created by suspending cameras beneath a balloon, raises concerns about why such an antiquated means of eavesdropping is still being used.

Spy balloons, however, present a desirable alternative because they fly between 24,000 and 37,000 meters above the ground, away from both commercial and military aircraft.

The balloons can be powered by solar panels and are propelled by the wind. 

Meanwhile, the efforts to resolve a number of points of contention, including the future of Taiwan and each side's military posture in the Indo-Pacific, will be impacted by Blinken's postponed visit to China.

Earlier this week, a treaty between the Philippines and the U.S., allowing the U.S. wider access to Philippine military bases for joint training, storing equipment, and building facilities, but not for a permanent presence, was also fiercely rejected by China.

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