Chinese balloon was ‘clearly’ for spying, says US official

The Chinese balloon that flew over North America for more than a week before being shot down over the Atlantic was carrying equipment capable of intercepting and geolocating communications, the US government has claimed.

A senior state department official said on Thursday that equipment was identified by a U-2 spy plane sent up to scrutinise the balloon.

“The high-altitude balloon’s equipment was clearly for intelligence surveillance and inconsistent with the equipment onboard weather balloons,” the official said. “It had multiple antennas to include an array likely capable of collecting and geolocating communications.

“It was equipped with solar panels large enough to produce the requisite power to operate multiple active intelligence collection sensors.”

China has used such balloons to collect intelligence over 40 countries on five continents, the US claims.

The Pentagon has so far insisted that despite carrying this equipment, the balloon did not give China an intelligence collection capability above what it already has via satellite and other means.

Republicans have criticised the Biden administration for not shooting the balloon down before it crossed the country. The Pentagon has said it did not present a serious threat and that it could not be shot down over land for fear of causing casualties on the ground.

Officials from the Pentagon, state department and US intelligence briefed members of Congress behind closed doors on Thursday. According to CNN, they said it had been assessed that little new intelligence was gleaned by the balloon operation because the Chinese appeared to stop transmitting information once the US discovered its presence, and that measures were taken to block the balloon’s collection capabilities.

The assistant secretary of defence for Indo-Pacific security affairs, Ely Ratner, said the Pentagon had made efforts to contact officials in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) through military channels, but without success.

“We continue to have an outstretched hand, including immediately following the downing of the balloon,” Ratner told the Senate. “Unfortunately, to date, the PLA is not answering that call.”

The administration is contemplating sanctions against those involved, potentially including the balloon’s manufacturer, which, according to the state department, is an “approved vendor” to the PLA.

“We will also look at broader efforts to expose and address the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China’s] larger surveillance activities that pose a threat to our national security, and to our allies and partners,” the department said.

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The US military does not have the authority to collect intelligence within the US, so a special dispensation was granted to conduct a counter-surveillance operation for the U-2 plane.

A salvage operation is under way off the coast of South Carolina, but FBI officials said very little of the balloon’s equipment payload had so far been recovered. Those fragments that have been recovered are being cleaned of salt and saltwater, the officials told reporters.

The deputy secretary of state, Wendy Sherman, said on Thursday morning that the Biden administration was reviewing its policy towards China and would be investing diplomatically in the Pacific to counter China’s “growing coercion” in Asia.

The US will reopen a diplomatic presence in Solomon Islands and intends to send diplomats and Peace Corps volunteers back to Tonga and Kiribati.

“It is true that our way of life, our democracy, our belief in our values, in the rules-based international order, is being challenged. And we have to meet that challenge,” Sherman told the Senate foreign relations committee.


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