The Chinese Foreign Ministry on Monday said that the US had sent 10 “high-altitude” balloons over its airspace since last year while refuting allegations that the Chinese balloon the US shot down was a surveillance device.
“US balloons have often entered other countries’ airspace illegally. Since last year, US high-altitude balloons have flown over Chinese airspace over ten times without authorization from China. The US needs to reflect on its own behavior and change course rather than attacking others and stoking confrontation,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a press conference.
Wang didn’t specify whether China thought the balloons were used for surveillance purposes. In response to his comments, the White House said any claims that the US has sent “surveillance balloons” into China were false.
While the White House denied that it sent surveillance balloons to China, and Wang’s claim isn’t confirmed, there are indications the US has deployed such devices or was at least planning to.
In July 2022, POLITICO reported that the Pentagon was planning to deploy surveillance balloons to use against China and Russia. The report said: “The high-altitude inflatables, flying at between 60,000 and 90,000 feet, would be added to the Pentagon’s extensive surveillance network and could eventually be used to track hypersonic weapons.”
In 2019, the Pentagon tested surveillance balloons by launching 25 inside the US from South Dakota, but there’s no indication they were sent outside the country. The purpose of testing the balloons was to see if they could “provide a persistent surveillance system to locate and deter narcotic trafficking and homeland security threats.”
Wang also mentioned the surveillance the US is conducting in the South China Sea, disputed waters that are mostly claimed by China. “The US military vessels and aircraft conduct frequent close-in reconnaissance on China, including 657 sorties last year and 64 sorties in January this year in the South China Sea alone, which seriously undermines China’s national security and regional peace and stability,” Wang said.
The South China Sea Probing Initiative, a Beijing-based think tank, also said the US conducted 64 surveillance flights over the South China Sea in January alone. Back in 2001, a US surveillance plane collided with a Chinese plane off the coast of Hainan Island in the South China Sea. The collision killed the Chinese pilot and forced the American plane to land in Chinese territory.
In recent years, the US has stepped up its military activity and reconnaissance flights in the South China Sea, making another accident like the Hainan Island incident more likely. Since the balloon incident, dialogue between the US and China has deteriorated, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceling a planned visit to China and the Chinese defense minister declining a call with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin after the US shot down the balloon.
Wang said that the US decision to shoot down the balloon with an F-22 was an overreaction. “We do need to point out, however, that the US’s downing of the unmanned airship with advanced missiles is a trigger-happy overreaction. Many in the US have been asking: what good can such costly action possibly bring to the US and its taxpayers?” he said.
Wang also pointed out other US global surveillance, including the NSA monitoring phones belonging to world leaders, which was revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. “It’s quite clear to the global community which country is the No.1 spy empire in the world,” he said.