Chess pieces with China and US flag divided by balloon wall

US and China clash over taking down of ‘spy balloons’

Image credit: Dreamstime and Canva

US fighter jets have shot down four “unidentified objects” in eight days, following an accusation that China uses balloons to spy on other nations.

The US and China have clashed over flying objects suspected to have been used as intelligence tools to spy on rival nations. 

Earlier today (Monday 13 February), China's Foreign Ministry accused the US of “illegally” flying 10 high-altitude balloons into its airspace over the last year. 

At a news conference today, Chinese ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin claimed it is “common for US balloons to illegally enter other countries’ airspace.”

The US has rejected this accusation and described the claim as an attempt at damage control, after US President Joe Biden gave the order to shoot down a Chinese balloon flying over US airspace on 4 February.

The White House declared that the balloon was equipped to detect and collect intelligence signals as part of a huge, military-linked aerial surveillance programme that targeted more than 40 countries, citing imagery from American U-2 spy planes.

In response to the incident, the US has placed economic restrictions on six Chinese entities it said are linked to Beijing’s aerospace programmes and voted 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”.

China denied the claims, stating that the balloon was meant for meteorological research and had been blown off course.

In the past eight days, US officials have shot down four more “unidentified flying objects” in a chain of events which Pentagon officials believe has no peacetime precedent.

The three objects were much smaller in size, different in appearance and flew at lower altitudes than the suspected spy balloon that fell into the Atlantic Ocean after the US missile strike.

The latest of them was shot down while flying over Lake Huron. It was described as octagonal in shape, with strings hanging off, but carrying no discernible payload.

“We have been more closely scrutinising our airspace at these altitudes, including enhancing our radar, which may at least partly explain the increase,” said Melissa Dalton, assistant defence secretary for homeland defence.

Apart from the January balloon, none of the other objects was said to have a Chinese origin, as they were not consistent with the fleet of Chinese aerial-surveillance balloons that reportedly targeted more than 40 countries, stretching back at least into the Trump administration.

Officials said they had not ruled out any possibility, including that of extraterrestrial objects, or UFOs. 

The cases have increased diplomatic tensions between the United States and China and raised questions about the extent of Beijing's surveillance of the US and of other nations. 

The UK government has responded to the situation by promising to do “whatever it takes” to keep the country safe from the threat of spy balloons. As part of this effort, the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, has announced the UK will conduct a security review. 

“The UK and her allies will review what these airspace intrusions mean for our security," he said. "This development is another sign of how the global threat picture is changing for the worse.”

The Prime Minister said that “national security matters” prevented him from commenting in more detail, but insisted that the UK was in “constant touch” with allies.

Last month, it was revealed that the US National Intelligence office is examining 510 reported sightings of unidentified flying objects (UFOs), also known as UAPs (unidentified aerial phenomena) - more than triple the number reported in 2021. 

Historically, the vast majority of sightings have been easily debunked with logical explanations ranging from atmospheric phenomena to aircraft obscured by cloud cover. Nonetheless, the US Department of Defense has stated in the past that it still investigates “each one” of the UAP sighting reports.

In 2021, a UK national survey revealed that 11 per cent of the British public think they have actually seen a UFO; 26 per cent believe that aliens exist, and more than half agree that intelligent life exists somewhere else in the universe.

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