Just days before a rare visit to Beijing by the top US diplomat, tensions between the two countries were sparked when the Pentagon announced on Thursday that it was tracking a Chinese spy balloon flying high above the United States.
“Clearly, the intent of this balloon is for surveillance,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and senior military leaders discussed shooting down the balloon at President Joe Biden’s request but ultimately determined doing so would put too many people at danger on the ground, a senior defence official told reporters on Thursday.
The balloon had flown over important airbases and strategic nuclear missiles in underground silos in the northwest of the country, the official continued, but the Pentagon did not consider it to be a particularly severe intelligence threat.
“We assess that this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective,” the official said.
The aircraft’s discovery comes only days before US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to visit China, with managing the growing tensions between the two nations at the top of the agenda.
The top American diplomat will be going to Beijing for the first time since 2018, following discussions between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in November on the fringes of the G20 summit.
Relations between the two nations have worsened in especially over democratically-governed Taiwan, which China has vowed to reunite with the mainland, by force if necessary, in addition to continuous disputes over trade and intellectual property.
In order for Taiwan to defend itself, the United States has been selling it arms, and Biden has stated that if China attacked, Washington would assist in defending Taiwan.
The balloon entered US airspace “a couple days ago,” according to a defence official, although US intelligence had been monitoring it for a long time before that.
After Biden asked about options for handling the balloon, Austin, who was in the Philippines, met with top Pentagon officials on Wednesday.
While discussions were going on, fighter jets were flown to look at it while it was over Montana.
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