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Aerial Espionage

In the first week of February 2023, the Pentagon claimed that China was using a balloon to monitor sensitive military bases of the US. Although Beijing rejected the claim, the US military shot down the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon, which had been transiting across the US for several days, on February 4. Later, the US military launched an operation in the Atlantic Ocean to recover the wreckage of the balloon.

On February 2, the Pentagon blasted the Asian Giant for conducting espionage through balloons. US President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr, too, announced that his administration would take a very good care of the balloon.

Meanwhile, Beijing stated that it used the balloon for meteorological experiments and scientific purposes. The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement, mentioning that the balloon failed to keep balance with the speed of the wind, and entered the US. Beijing described the incident as a result of a force majeure for which it was not responsible. The Foreign Ministry also apologised for the accident, stressing that Beijing would make serious efforts to avoid such a mistake in future. Immediately after Beijing issued the statement, a senior Pentagon official insisted: “We have noted the PRC statement of regret, but the presence of this balloon in our airspace is a clear violation of our sovereignty, as well as international law, and is unacceptable that this has occurred.

The balloon was first seen flying in the north-western part of the US. Initially, US Secretary of Defence Lloyd James Austin III had said that it would be shot down. However, the US Military was not sure whether there was any radioactive materials inside the balloon. In that case, it would be dangerous if the balloon would fall into a densely populated area. The balloon was later shot down off the coast of South Carolina.

Defence Secretary Austin told the press that President Biden gave authorisation on February 1 to take down the balloon as soon as it could be done “without undue risk to American lives under the balloon’s path”. He added: “In accordance with the President’s direction, the Department of Defence developed options to take down the balloon safely over our territorial waters, while closely monitoring its path and intelligence collection activities.

The video of the moment the balloon was shot down has spread on social media. It was seen in the video that the high-altitude balloon, estimated to be the size of three school buses, bursting in a small explosion before falling into the water.

The balloon episode prompted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to indefinitely postpone his visit to China scheduled on February 3. The visit was aimed at reinforcing communication and cooperation between the two countries, as tensions have deepened over China’s increasing military aggression toward Taiwan and closer alliances with Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent times. Instead, Blinken made a phone call to Wang Yi, the Director of China’s Central Foreign Affairs Office, and told the latter that the balloon was an “irresponsible act and a clear violation of US sovereignty and international law that undermined the purpose of the trip”.

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