China accuses US of sending balloons into its airspace ‘more than 10 times’

BEIJING: China accused the United States on Monday of flying balloons over its territory, hitting back against Washington’s claims that Beijing has been sending alleged surveillance aircraft.

Relations between the United States and China have further soured after Washington shot down an alleged Chinese espionage device in early February, which Beijing has insisted was for civilian purposes.

A number of other such devices have since been shot down over the US and Canada, though Beijing has only admitted that the first was one of its own.

Over the weekend, Chinese state-affiliated media reported that an unidentified flying object had been spotted off the country’s east coast — and that the military was preparing to shoot it down.

Beijing on Monday declined to comment on that report, only referring journalists to the defence ministry, which did not respond to requests for comment from AFP.

But it did accuse the United States of sending more than 10 balloons into its airspace since January 2022.

“It’s not uncommon as well for the US to illegally enter the airspace of other countries,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said during a briefing.

“Since last year alone, US balloons have illegally flown above China more than 10 times without any approval from Chinese authorities.”

Asked how China responded to those alleged incursions, Wang said Beijing’s “handling (of these incidents) was responsible and professional”.

“If you want to know more about US high-altitude balloons illegally entering China’s airspace, I suggest you refer to the US side,” he added.

AFP has contacted the US State Department and the Pentagon for comment on Beijing’s allegations, but has yet to receive a response.

Watching the skies

Americans have been watching the skies as a growing number of aerial incursions are reported — of which Beijing on Monday denied knowledge.

On Sunday the Pentagon said that it does not yet know what the other three objects — one shot down Friday over Alaska, one Saturday over Canada’s Yukon territory, and the most recent one Sunday over Lake Huron — are.

But it said the object downed Sunday had been tracked for nearly a day and did not resemble the alleged Chinese surveillance balloon that was destroyed off the Atlantic coast on February 4 after traversing the country.

President Joe Biden ordered an F-16 fighter to shoot down the latest object “out of abundance of caution”, a senior administration official said.

The object was described by the official as an octagonal structure with strings hanging off it.

Drifting at about 20,000 feet (6,000 meters) over Michigan, it could have posed a hazard to civil aviation, the official said.

US Northern Command Commander General Glen VanHerck told reporters that after aircraft were sent up to inspect the newest object, they concluded that there was no indication of any threat, the same with the previous objects.

“What we are seeing is very, very small objects that produce a very, very low radar cross-section,” he said.

He declined to describe the shape or size of the objects, but said they were travelling very slowly, around the speed of the wind.

Speculation as to what the objects may be has ignited in recent days.

“I will let the intel community and the counterintelligence community figure that out,” VanHerck told reporters when asked if it was possible the objects are aliens or extra-terrestrials.

“I haven’t ruled out anything at this point.”

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