Second Chinese ‘spy balloon’ spotted over Latin America as tensions rise

A suspected Chinese spy balloon in the sky over Billings, Montana (CHASE DOAK/AFP via Getty Images)
A suspected Chinese spy balloon in the sky over Billings, Montana (CHASE DOAK/AFP via Getty Images)

A second alleged Chinese spy balloon is reportedly flying over Latin America, Pentagon officials have said.

“We are seeing reports of a balloon transiting Latin America,” Pentagon spokesperson Pat Ryder said, a day after the first craft was spotted over US skies.

“We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon.”

The Pentagon did not specify the balloon’s exact location, but a US official told CNN it did not appear to be currently heading towards the US.

Canada’s national defence agency also confirmed it was monitoring a potential second incident of a suspected spy balloon.

It came after the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, postponed his trip to China following the discovery of a high-altitude Chinese balloon that was spotted over the US.

The decision to scrap the trip came just hours before Mr Blinken was to depart Washington for Beijing for talks at a fraught time for US-China relations. The last visit by a US secretary of state was in 2017.

A senior official said the US communicated directly with China through multiple levels once the balloon - which the US described as a surveillance satellite - was detected.

In South Korea on Friday, Mr Blinken said he had spoken with Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, and “made clear that the presence of this surveillance balloon in US airspace is a clear violation of US sovereignty and international law”.

Mr Blinken said, however, that he had told Wang that “the United States is committed to diplomatic engagement with China and that I plan to visit Beijing when conditions allow”.

“The first step is getting the surveillance asset out of our airspace. That’s what we’re focused on,” he told reporters.

Earlier, Bejing’s foreign ministry said the balloon was a weather-monitoring airship that had limited steering capability and "deviated far from its planned course" because of winds.

Beijing added that it regretted the unintended entry into US airspace.

The Pentagon, which is tracking the craft, decided not to shoot it down due to the risk of injuring people on the ground.

Press secretary for The Pentagon, Brigadier General Patrick Ryder, said the balloon is "currently travelling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground".

The US Senator Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, said the spy balloon was alarming but not a surprise.

“The level of espionage aimed at our country by Beijing has grown dramatically more intense & brazen over the last five years," Mr Rubio tweeted.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, Mao Ning, told a regular daily briefing in Beijing: "I would like to emphasize that until the facts are clarified, speculation and hype will not be helpful to the proper resolution of the issue."

The balloon’s presence comes in the same week that the US announced a string of moves expanding its military presence in Asia, aimed at countering Beijing.An American official said the balloon’s flight path would cross a number of sensitive sites.

Malmstrom Air Force Base is home to 150 intercontinental ballistic missile silos.

The Billings, Montana, airport issued a ground stop as the military mobilized assets including F-22 fighter jets in case President Biden ordered that the balloon be shot down.

A defence expert, John Parachini, estimated the balloon was equivalent in length to three buses.

Meanwhile, a Billings resident Chase Doak, who filmed it on Wednesday, said at first he thought it was a star.

“But I thought that was kind of crazy because it was broad daylight and when I looked at it, it was just too big to be a star," he said.

Such balloons typically operate at 80,000-120,000 feet, well above commercial air flights. The highest-performing fighter aircraft typically do not operate above 65,000 feet.

Craig Singleton, a China expert with the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, said balloons were widely used by the US and Soviet Union during the Cold War.