Chinese spy balloons like the one the US shot down are part of a vast fleet that has conducted surveillance on at least five continents for several years, according to the US government.
Similar balloons floated over the US on four occasions since 2017, though the US did not immediately identify them as Chinese surveillance tools.
“Subsequent intelligence analysis” has since allowed the US to confirm that they are part of spying efforts by Beijing, said a Pentagon spokesperson.
Washington has begun briefing other countries about findings, as the US “was not the only target of this broader program,” said Antony Blinken, US secretary of state.
A massive white balloon outfitted with sophisticated technology travelled from Canada into the US, flying over the northwest to the southeast, hovering above sensitive military installations along the way, before being shot down by the US military in the Atlantic Ocean.
The balloon is the latest incident to highlight China’s ever-pervasive security and espionage efforts around the world, and has exacerbated tensions between Beijing and Washington.
Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary-general, expressed concern about China’s activities, saying the balloon underscored the necessity for alliance countries to band together to protect themselves.
“The Chinese balloon over the United States confirms a pattern of Chinese behaviour where we see that China over the last years has invested in new military capabilities,” he said.
“We’ve also seen increased Chinese intelligence activities in Europe. They use satellites, they use cyber, and as we’ve seen over the United States, also balloons. So we just have to be vigilant.”
Other balloons have reportedly been spotted before floating above American military sites including in Texas, Florida, Hawaii, Virginia, California and Guam, where the US has navy and air force bases and stations its aircraft carriers.
Beijing has blasted the US for “hyping” the China threat, and continues to state that the balloon was a civilian meteorology research “airship.”
On Thursday, state media went as far as to ridicule the US, saying that China’s balloon had “cutting-edge” technologies that America had yet to master.
The Washington Post reported that the balloon program was run partly out of the southern Chinese island of Hainan, a major naval base for the People’s Liberation Army.
Spy balloons are old technology that can gather much of the same information as satellites, though have the advantage of being able to linger over one spot for a longer period of time. Satellites, on the other hand, have less time to capture images as the Earth rotates.
In the last few years, similar balloons have been spotted as well in Japan and Taiwan. Earlier this week, China confirmed a second balloon seen over South America was theirs, and apologised to the Costa Rican government, though again stressed that it was merely a civilian vessel.
China has also used spy balloons in propaganda. In 2020, a documentary on state television that showed Chinese fighter pilots in drills to shoot down foreign balloons that could “endanger air defence security.”
The video showed a pilot hitting a red button to send out a missile.
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