US says China balloon could collect intelligence signals
The Chinese balloon shot down by the US was equipped to detect and collect intelligence signals as part of a huge, military-linked aerial surveillance programme that targeted more than 40 countries, the Biden administration has declared.
It cited imagery from American U-2 spy planes in reaching its conclusion.
A fleet of balloons operates under the direction of the People’s Liberation Army and is used specifically for spying, outfitted with high-tech equipment designed to gather sensitive information from targets across the globe, the US said.
Similar balloons have sailed over five continents, according to the administration.
A statement from a senior State Department official offered the most detail to date linking China’s military to the balloon that was shot down by the US last weekend over the Atlantic Ocean.
The public details outlining the programme’s scope and capabilities were meant to refute China’s persistent denials that the balloon was used for spying, including a claim on Thursday that US accusations about the balloon amount to “information warfare”.
On Capitol Hill, the House voted unanimously to condemn China for a “brazen violation” of US sovereignty and efforts to “deceive the international community through false claims about its intelligence collection campaigns”.
Republicans have criticised President Joe Biden for not acting sooner to down the balloon, but both parties’ politicians came together on the vote, 419-0.
In Beijing, before the US offered its new information, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning repeated her nation’s insistence that the large unmanned balloon was a civilian meteorological airship that had blown off course and that the US had “overreacted” by shooting it down.
“It is irresponsible,” Ms Mao said.
The latest accusations, she said, “may be part of the US side’s information warfare against China”.
Underscoring the tensions, China’s defence minister refused to take a phone call from US defence secretary Lloyd Austin to discuss the balloon issue on Saturday, the Pentagon said.
Secretary of state Antony Blinken cancelled a planned weekend trip to Beijing.
The US flatly contradicted China’s version of events, saying that imagery of the balloon collected by American U-2 spy planes as it crossed the country showed that it was “capable of conducting signals intelligence collection” with multiple antennas and other equipment designed to upload sensitive information and solar panels to power them.
Jedidiah Royal, the US assistant defence secretary for the Indo-Pacific, told a senate appropriations sub-committee that the military has “some very good guesses” about what intelligence China was seeking.
Senior FBI officials said just a few pieces of the balloon had arrived at the FBI’s Quantico lab for investigation.
So far, investigators have parts of the balloon canopy, wiring, and what one official called “a very small amount of electronics”.
The official said it was “very early for us to assess what the intent was and how the device was operating”.
According to two US officials, the balloon recovery efforts were temporarily suspended on Thursday due to high seas. They said some balloon debris was intact on the ocean floor and divers had recovered potentially high-value equipment over the past day and a half.
A State Department official said an analysis of the balloon debris was “inconsistent” with China’s explanation that it was a weather balloon that went off course.
The US is reaching out to countries that have also been targeted, the official said, to discuss the scope of the Chinese surveillance programme, and is looking into potential action that “supported the balloon’s incursion into US airspace”.
The official said the US has confidence that the manufacturer of the balloon shot down on Saturday has “a direct relationship with China’s military and is an approved vendor” of the army. The official cited information from an official PLA procurement portal as evidence for the connection between the company and the military.
The release of new information appeared part of a co-ordinated administration response, with multiple officials appearing before congressional committees to face questions about the balloon.
Testifying before the senate foreign relations committee, deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman said officials had taken “all necessary steps to protect sensitive information” and had been able to study and scrutinise the balloon and its equipment.
“We will continue to answer the dangers posed by the PRC with determination and resolve,” she said, referring to the People’s Republic of China. “We will make clear to the PRC that violations of our sovereignty and the sovereignty of other countries are unacceptable.”