The United States said Wednesday that Chinese surveillance balloons have been spotted across at least five continents over the past several years and that Washington has been in contact with its allies to share information on the operations.
“We've already shared information with dozens of countries around the world, both from Washington and through our embassies. And we're doing so because the United States was not the only target as far as this program, which has violated the sovereignty of countries across five continents,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a press conference with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the State Department.
“As to who's responsible for that, China is. And it doesn't matter, on one level, which individuals may or may not have been responsible,” Blinken said when asked whether he thought Chinese President Xi Jinping was aware of the spy balloon operations.
The top U.S. diplomat said that Washington is learning more “by the hour” from the balloon recovery efforts and that he would have more to say about it in the days ahead.
On Monday, Reuters reported that U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman had briefed nearly 150 foreign diplomats across 40 embassies, while the U.S. Embassy in Beijing had gathered foreign diplomats earlier this week to present U.S. findings about the surveillance balloon operations.
Stoltenberg told reporters the operation of the Chinese balloon over the United States confirmed a pattern of behavior by the People’s Republic of China.
China is substantially building up its military forces, "including nuclear weapons, without any transparency," Stoltenberg said. "This is attempting to assert control over the South China Sea and threatening Taiwan, trying to take control of critical infrastructure, including in NATO countries, repressing its own citizens and trampling on human rights and deepening its strategic partnership with Moscow.”
The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that the Chinese balloon that recently traveled across the continental United States is part of an extensive surveillance program operated by the Chinese military.
At the Pentagon, Defense Department press secretary Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder said a total of five surveillance balloons from PRC have flown over the United States. He did not elaborate on the paths those balloons took or whether the U.S. sites were military ones. But he said the Chinese balloons have been "operating over at least five continents in regions like Latin America, South America, Southeast Asia, East Asia and Europe.”
“It calls into question why China, the PRC, feels that it's OK to violate sovereign airspace of nations in a way that is inappropriate and unacceptable,” Ryder told reporters at a Wednesday briefing.
The U.S. intelligence community developed the ability to identify the balloons, which had been tracked but had not been identified as such, "in the last couple of years," he said.
While "some of these balloons previously had not been identified, subsequent analysis, subsequent intelligence analysis, did enable us to indicate that these were Chinese balloons."
"I can assure you this was not for civilian purposes,” he added. “We are 100% clear about that."
China said it was a weather balloon that had inadvertently strayed off course. The U.S. categorically rejected the claim, saying it was a PRC surveillance balloon seeking intelligence of sensitive military sites.
A U.S. fighter jet shot down the balloon on Saturday as it traveled over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South Carolina. Beijing called the shoot-down an overreaction.
Jeff Seldin and Cindy Saine contributed to this report. Some information came from Reuters.