China has accused the US of repeatedly flying surveillance balloons into its airspace, allegations Washington immediately denied, as tensions between the two nations reached a new high.
Beijing’s accusations came after the US shot down what it said was a Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina this month and subsequently downed three other objects, most recently at the weekend.
“It’s very common that the US intrudes [into] others’ airspace,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on Monday. “Just last year, more than 10 American high-altitude balloons illegally flew through Chinese airspace without permission from the relevant Chinese authorities.”
Within hours the White House rejected the claims as “false”, saying it had never operated “surveillance balloons” over China. “This is the latest example of China scrambling to do damage control,” said Adrienne Watson, the US National Security Council spokesperson.
In broader claims about alleged US aerial surveillance, Wang also said Washington frequently sent “ships and aircraft to conduct reconnaissance”. He accused the US of 657 aircraft sorties last year and as many as 64 aircraft flights last month “over the South China Sea alone”.
Wang did not specify how many of the alleged US surveillance missions were flown over China’s internationally recognised territory and how many over its claims in the South China Sea, most of which are not recognised under international law.
China also insists that the balloon that passed through US and Canadian airspace was conducting meteorological research. The balloon was shot down this month at the order of President Joe Biden.
The US says the balloon had multiple antennas for intelligence gathering and was part of a broader surveillance fleet that had sent balloons over more than 40 countries and five continents. Watson said on Monday that Beijing had “failed to offer any credible explanations for its intrusion into our airspace [or] airspace of others”.
The three other unidentified objects subsequently downed by the US were over Lake Huron on Sunday, Canada’s Yukon territory on Saturday and Alaska on Friday. The US has not attributed them to any country, but the incidents have raised further tensions in the fraught US-China relationship, which has reached one of its lowest points since the 1979 restoration of diplomatic ties between the two nations.
General Glen VanHerck, head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (Norad), said on Sunday that a joint US-Canadian military command had tracked the latest object since the day before, when it appeared to enter American airspace, before deciding to shoot it down.
Norad determined the object had flown near sensitive military sites in Montana.
The suspected Chinese spy balloon that crossed North America earlier this month also flew over a site in Montana where the US military stores nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles.
VanHerck said Norad was classifying the three targets that were shot down over the past three days as “objects”, adding that he was “not going to categorise them as balloons”. He added that the US and Canada were still investigating and had not determined the origin of the objects.
“I would be hesitant, and would urge you, not to attribute it to any specific country. We don’t know,” he said.
China’s Wang did not provide more details on state media reports on Sunday that Beijing was preparing to shoot down an unidentified object flying off the coast of north-eastern Shandong province.
As of Monday morning, Beijing had not specified what the object was or confirmed whether it had been downed. The Financial Times was unable to confirm more details about the object with local government bureaus.
Additional reporting by Ryan McMorrow in Beijing and James Politi and Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington