The United States will explore taking action against entities connected to China’s military that supported the flight of a Chinese spy balloon into US airspace last week.
Washington is confident that the manufacturer of the Chinese balloon has a “direct relationship” with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), a senior State Department official said on Thursday.
The manufacturer is an approved vendor of the People’s Liberation Army, the official said, without naming the business.
The company also advertises balloon products on its website and hosts videos from past flights, which appear to have overflown US airspace and the airspace of other countries, the official said.
White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre echoed the notion that Washington would look at taking action.
The US government has not yet specified what measures are under consideration.
Jean-Pierre told reporters the United States would also look at broader efforts to “expose and address” China’s larger surveillance activities that pose a threat to US national security and to allies and partners.
‘Intelligence collection capability’
The official said the United States has collected high-resolution imagery of the balloon from U-2 aircraft fly-bys. Images revealed the Chinese spy balloon was capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations.
China had conducted similar surveillance flights over more than 40 countries on five continents, the official said.
State Department spokesman Ned Price told a briefing later that activity had occurred “over the course of several years.”
The New York Times reported, citing the US State Department, the Chinese balloon had equipment onboard that was “inconsistent” with weather balloons and “clearly for intelligence surveillance”.
The FBI is leading efforts to analyse remains of the balloon, which was shot down by the US military. The agency told reporters that it had obtained only limited physical evidence and did not yet have enough information to assess its capabilities.
“It’s very early for us in this process, and the evidence that has been recovered and brought to the FBI is extremely limited,” a bureau official said.
FBI officials said they still did not have access to the majority of the balloon’s “payload” where most of the onboard electronics were likely carried, and that much of it remains underwater.
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Still hopeful for US-China climate talks
Separately on Thursday, speaking at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman highlighted the flight of the Chinese balloon as another sign of Beijing’s efforts to reshape the international order.
“This irresponsible act put on full display what we’ve long recognised: that the PRC (People’s Republic of China) has become more repressive at home and more aggressive abroad,” Sherman told the hearing.
Sherman said Washington would continue to block China from using US technology to advance its military modernisation.
“The PRC is the only competitor with the intent and means to reshape the international order,” Sherman said. The Chinese spy balloon’s violation of US sovereignty and international law was the “latest example of that reality,” she said.
Sherman added she still hoped Washington and Beijing would be able to continue to work together on issues of shared concern such a climate change “at this difficult time.”
US ‘info war’ on China
The spectacle of the Chinese balloon drifting over the United States last week caused political outrage in Washington.
It prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a trip to Beijing that both countries had hoped would patch up frayed relations.
The House of Representatives also voted 419-0 for a resolution condemning China for the balloon incursion.
The developments show the political pressure President Joe Biden’s administration remains under to address the incident.
“I hate to disappoint you. We haven’t learned anything more than what everyone always knew,” Senator Bob Menendez, the Democratic chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said after emerging from a classified briefing given by administration officials on the balloon on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning again dismissed US charges that the balloon was part of a worldwide spying fleet.
The allegation could be part of a “US information war against China,” she said.
- Reuters, with additional editing by Vishakha Saxena