A high-altitude balloon that’s been flying over a sensitive United States site, as well as a "potential" second one that’s been detected over Canada, is igniting stern talks from Ottawa to its ambassador from China.
The first balloon was confirmed to be floating in U.S. airspace on Thursday, which prompted Global Affairs Canada (GAC) officials to call upon Chinese Ambassador Cong Peiwu, according to GAC spokeswoman Charlotte MacLeod.
"China's ambassador to Canada was summoned by officials at Global Affairs Canada," MacLeod said in a statement. "We will continue to vigorously express our position to Chinese officials through multiple channels."
Pentagon officials confirmed the balloon was spotted over the state of Montana, which is where one of the U.S.’s three nuclear missile silo fields are based, at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
It’s not known whether the balloon travelled through Canadian airspace, though Canada is entwined with the U.S. when it comes to airspace, as both countries are part of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).
“North American air defence is integrated through NORAD, so Canada and the United States would have noticed the balloon simultaneously,” said David Welch, a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo.
The National Defence Department said in its statement that intelligence agencies were working alongside its American counterparts.
They also stressed that Canadians are safe and Ottawa is doing what it can to guarantee the security of its airspace. This includes monitoring “a second potential incident", though details around that remain vague.
It’s unknown where in Canada this second potential incident has appeared.
China’s foreign ministry said on Friday that the balloon was actually a civilian airship meant to be used for meteorological research, which had limited “self-steering” capacities and was blown off its planned course by winds. The statement said that the Chinese side regretted the unintended entry into U.S. airspace as a result of events beyond its control.
"The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure," the statement said, citing a legal term used to refer to events beyond one's control.
The Pentagon recommended against shooting down the balloon with a fighter jet, as the size of the debris from it had the potential to put people at risk.
U.S. officials have assessed that the balloon has limited capacities to provide intelligence that China couldn’t receive through other means, like spy satellites.
The discovery of the balloon over North American airspace comes just before U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken intended trip to Beijing this weekend, which would have made him the highest ranking member of Biden's administration to visit China.
The trip has since been postponed.