Chinese authorities have confirmed that an “unmanned aircraft” flying over Latin America originated in China, even as Beijing stepped up its protests against the U.S. military’s decision to shoot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon that traversed the United States last week.
At a regular news briefing on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said that the second balloon came also from China but claimed that it was used for civilian flight tests. “Due to the impact of weather and limited self-steering ability, this aircraft seriously deviated from its scheduled course,” Mao said.
The Pentagon had identified the vehicle as another suspected Chinese surveillance device, similar to the huge white globe spotted by civilians Wednesday as it hung over the U.S. state of Montana. Beijing said that one was a weather balloon blown off-course.
Asked why China had so much trouble keeping its balloons in check, Mao said that she was “not an expert” and could only say that “this is not the first time that control was lost of balloons used for scientific purposes by the international community.”
Separately on Monday, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng lodged “solemn representations” with the United States Embassy in Beijing over the use of an F-22 Raptor to shoot down the balloon that had slowly drifted across U.S. continental airspace over multiple days. “The facts are very clear that this incident was accidental and it must not be misrepresented,” he said. “China urges the U.S. side not to escalate or broaden a tense situation.”
After initially expressing regret for the appearance of the balloon, China’s stance hardened over the weekend with accusations that the U.S. response was an “overreaction” and had “seriously violated international practices.” The Chinese military said that it reserved the right to use unspecified “necessary means” in similar situations.
After U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delayed a planned trip to Beijing over the incident, China has sought to both contain diplomatic fallout and signal resolve to domestic audiences.
Although few hoped for a significant détente, Blinken’s visit would have been the first in five years by America’s top diplomat to China and would have helped capitalize on a meeting between President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in November.
After a decade of increasingly bellicose foreign policy, Xi began his third term in office with a display of diplomatic pragmatism spurred, analysts said, by a desire to ease international tensions and focus on economic and covid troubles at home.
Instead of improved relations, China now finds itself struggling to prevent a lingering crisis spreading beyond its relationship with the United States.
So far, however, Latin American countries have mostly remained silent about the second balloon. Colombia’s Air Force said Saturday that it had monitored an object flying at 55,000 feet across its airspace.
Within China, nationalist Chinese commentators have piled on with memes mocking the United States and unsubstantiated theories to back up their claims that the incident demonstrates American weakness.
Zhanhao, one of the most popular current-affairs blogs on social media platform WeChat, declared that the United States “had not discovered” the balloon when it entered U.S. airspace and merely got lucky. “This is like advertising a weakness in American anti-air defenses. If a relevant country wants to attack the United States, there just need to develop a ‘research’ balloon,” the article said.
The article didn’t mention that the U.S. officials considered shooting the balloon down earlier but decided to wait until it was above open water to avoid the risk of debris hitting people on the ground.
But Mao, the ministry spokesperson, suggested Monday that it was China that had been unaware of the balloon entering U.S. airspace. Asked when Chinese authorities noticed the balloon had gone off-course, she said, without elaborating, “after the U.S. side reported it, we immediately investigated.”
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The Washington Post’s Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.