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Why Is Everyone Talking About This 'Chinese Spy Balloon'?

A high altitude balloon floats over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday, February 1, 2023.
A high altitude balloon floats over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday, February 1, 2023.

A high altitude balloon floats over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday, February 1, 2023.

Everyone is talking about a “Chinese spy balloon” supposedly hoovering over the US and wondering where it could possibly have come from.

If it sounds surreal, that’s because it is – and at the moment, it seems like no-one is willing to explain what’s actually going on.

At first, neither the US nor China have admitted to knowing about the origins of the apparent inflatable – which obviously meant the whole of Twitter was wildly speculating.

The incident then got its own Wikipedia page, before China suggested it was a “civilian airship”.

So here’s what we do know so far about the mysterious floating object.

What is the ‘spy balloon’?

US defence officials saw the large, white balloon on Thursday, February 2 floating across the north of the US.

It was first noted over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday, where there are 150 intercontinental ballistic missile silos.

Officials then started to track it as they suspected it was a Chinese surveillance balloon.

They claimed that its current flight path carries it over “a number of sensitive” military sites, adding that Washington has “very high confidence” the balloon has Chinese origins and is looking to collect information.

One official described it as the size of three buses, and large enough to be visible to commercial pilots.

However, the Pentagon was quick to note that it did not pose a “military or physical threat”, and that it was travelling at an altitude much higher than commercial planes.

Even so, Pentagon press secretary brigadier general Patrick Ryder said: “Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years.

“Once the balloon was detected, the US government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”

Spy balloons using jet stream air currents have been used for decades, notably by Japan during World War 2. They can be used to drop weapons or as means of surveillance.

Canadian officials then said they had also spotted a high-altitude surveillance balloon. It’s not clear if this is the same one, which is thought to have flown, into the US after travelling over the Aleutian Islands and Canada, or a second object.

The Canadian National Defence said: “Canadians are safe and Canada is taking steps to ensure the security of its airspace, including the monitoring of a potential second incident.”

What does the US plan to do about the balloon?

The US did scramble fighter jets to shoot it down, but US president Joe Biden and the Pentagon are against doing so because of the risk to civilians from the falling debris.

The military is reportedly ready to shoot it down though, if ordered by the White House.

“Why not shoot it down? We have to do the risk-reward here,” a senior defence official told reporters.

“So the first question is, does it pose a threat, a physical kinetic threat, to individuals in the United States in the US homeland? Our assessment is it does not.

“Does it pose a threat to civilian aviation? Our assessment is it does not. Does it pose a significantly enhanced threat on the intelligence side? Our best assessment right now is that it does not.

“So given that profile, we assess the risk of downing it, even if the probability is low in a sparsely populated area of the debris falling and hurting someone or damaging property, that it wasn’t worth it.”

What has China said?

Beijing refused to confirm it sent the balloon, and China’s foreign ministry has said the country is “verifying the facts” over the incident.

Spokesperson Mao Ning said: “We have no intention to violate other countries’ sovereignty and airspace. We are gathering and verifying the facts. We hope the relevant parties will handle the matter in a cool-headed way.”

The state-backed newspaper, Global Times, wrote in English on Twitter: “The balloon itself is a big target. If balloons from other country could really enter continental US smoothly...it only proves that the US’s air defence system is completely a decoration.”

Twitter is banned in China.

Then on Friday, China’s foreign ministry claimed it was a “civilian airship” that had strayed into US airspace, and that it regretted it had blown off course.

What does this mean for China-US relations?

Although China has now offered up an explanation, the incident may still potentially worsen the existing tensions between the US and China.

As Montana governor Greg Gianforte said: “From the spy balloon to the Chinese Communist Party spying on Americans through TikTok to CCP-linked companies buying American farmland, I’m deeply troubled by the constant stream of alarming developments for our national security.”

US secretary of state Antony Blinken was planning to visit China between February 5 and 6, to discuss Russia’s war on Ukraine, but in the aftermath of the balloon incident, he has postponed the trip.

The two countries are already at odds over the war itself, with China’s more neutral status – it has decline to support or condemn Russia actively or openly – has been criticised in the US, where support for Ukraine is paramount.

Why is the internet so fascinated?

Twitter has lit up with speculation around the origins of the object, and is full of videos/pictures from those in the US who have managed to spot the balloon themselves.

Here’s a small snippet of the less sincere tweets about the incident...

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