The Chinese spy balloon downed and captured by the United States was part of a global surveillance programme by Beijing, US officials said on Wednesday.
“The United States was not the only target of this broader programme, which has violated the sovereignty of countries across five continents,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. Information about the Chinese spy balloon had already been shared with dozens of countries, he added.
Earlier this week, the Washington Post reported, citing unnamed sources, that the Chinese spy balloon programme had been operational for years. It had collected “information on military assets” from various countries including “Japan, India, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines,” it said.
In a joint news conference with the head of NATO, Blinken said Washington was gaining more information on the downed Chinese spy balloon “almost by the hour”. The United States would share relevant findings with Congress and allies around the world, he said.
The Pentagon also said on Wednesday that four previous Chinese spy balloon flights over the US passed over sites that would be of interest to Beijing.
Pentagon spokesperson Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said Washington was aware of the four past flights before it detected the latest Chinese ‘spy’ balloon. He did not elaborate on whether they passed over military bases.
“They were over sites that would be of interest to the Chinese,” Ryder told reporters.
He said US Navy ships, led by the USS Carter Hall and including unmanned underwater vehicles, were still recovering the debris. On Tuesday divers and explosive technicians carried out underwater collection and survey activities, he added.
‘Worldwide Chinese spying programme’
Blinken said that he and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had discussed “the systemic and tactical challenges China presents to alliance and the broader international system.”
Stoltenberg said China had invested heavily in new military capabilities, including nuclear weapons, without any transparency. The flight of the spy balloon confirmed a pattern of Chinese behaviour, he said.
“And we’ve also seen increased Chinese intelligence activities in Europe. Again, different platforms: they use satellites, they use cyber, and as we’ve seen over the United States, also balloons. So we just have to be vigilant,” he said.
“We need to be aware of the constant risk of Chinese intelligence and then step up what we do to protect ourselves,” Stoltenberg added.
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Blinken avoided a specific answer when asked if Chinese leader Xi Jinping was aware of the balloon flights.
“As to who’s responsible for that, China is,” he said. “And it doesn’t matter on one level, which individuals may or may not have been responsible. The fact is China engaged in this irresponsible action, a violation of our sovereignty and territorial integrity and international law.”
A senior US general said on Monday the military had been unable to detect previous spy balloons in real time before the one that appeared on January 28. He called it an “awareness gap.”
Japan exchanging information with US
Japan is exchanging information on Chinese spy balloons with the United States, top government spokesperson Hirokazu Matsuno said on Thursday.
There have been confirmations of suspected balloons flying over Japan, including in the open waters off the southwestern region of Kyushu in 2022, Matsuno told reporters at a regular news conference.
“We will continue to monitor the situation with utmost interest and gather information,” he added.
The Pentagon said over the weekend that Chinese spy balloons had briefly flown over the United States at least three times during President Donald Trump’s administration and one previously under President Joe Biden.
The White House has downplayed any drastic effect the incident would have on US-China relations. Biden himself said on Monday that the issue had not weakened relations.
Washington is also looking to reschedule Blinken’s trip to Beijing, which was scheduled for February 5-6, but cancelled following the discovery of the Chinese spy balloon.
- Reuters, with additional editing by Vishakha Saxena