The Chinese balloon drifting high above the U.S. and first revealed over Montana has created a buzz down below among residents who initially wondered what it was — and now wonder what its arrival means amid a chorus of alarm raised by elected officials.
The balloon roiled diplomatic tensions as it continued to move over the central U.S. on Friday at 60,000 feet (18,300 meters). Secretary of State Antony Blinken abruptly canceled an upcoming trip to China.
Curiosity about the bobbling sky orb that’s the size of three school buses swept the nation and the internet, with search terms like “where is the spy balloon now?” and “spy balloon tracker” surging on Google. There is no such tracker just yet, but a couple St. Louis TV stations offered grainy live feeds of the balloon.
Internet users posted wobbly videos and photos of white splotches in comments sections and speculative feeds. And online storm chasers, more accustomed to tracking raging systems and funnel clouds, offered updates on the balloon’s path through cloudless skies.
It crossed into U.S. airspace over Alaska early this week, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic.
In Montana — home to Malmstrom Air Force base and dozens of nuclear missile silos — people doubted Beijing’s claim that it was a weather balloon gone off course. And the governor and members of Congress pressed the Biden administration over why the military did not immediately bring it down from the sky.
“I question whether or not we would even found out about this if people hadn’t spotted it in Billings,” said Chase Doak, a resident of the southern Montana city who appears to have captured some of the first known video footage and photographs of the balloon.
A white balloon with what appeared to be a solar array hanging beneath it was seen over Billings Wednesday afternoon, around the same time the local airport was temporarily shut down and a day before the Pentagon said it was tracking a Chinese spy balloon over the state.
Initial speculation over its origins ranged from the foreign to the extra-terrestrial.
When Todd Hewett’s 10-year-old son saw it over Billings he thought it was a comet. Hewett got some shaky footage, using a cellphone to take video through a telescope, and was skeptical of the Chinese claim it was a civilian balloon.
“Shoot it down,” he said. “If we could somehow pierce the bottom of it to allow some of the gas to escape to allow for a more controlled descent (that) would be nice .. but if we can’t do that … blow it up.”
China plays down Blinken’s cancelled visit
China played down the cancellation of a visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken after a large Chinese balloon suspected of conducting surveillance on US military sites roiled diplomatic relations, saying that neither side had formally announced any such plan.
“In actuality, the U.S. and China have never announced any visit, the US making any such announcement is their own business, and we respect that,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement Saturday morning.
Blinken was due to visit Beijing on Sunday for talks aimed at reducing US-China tensions, the first such high-profile trip after the countries’ leaders met last November in Indonesia.
But the US abruptly cancelled the trip after the discovery of the huge balloon despite China’s claim that it was merely a weather research “airship” that had blown off course.
The Pentagon rejected that out of hand — as well as China’s contention that the balloon was not being used for surveillance and had only limited navigational ability.
Uncensored reactions on the Chinese internet mirrored the official government stance that the US was hyping up the situation.
Many users made jokes about the balloon. Some said that since the U.S. had put restrictions on the technology that China is able to buy to weaken the Chinese tech industry, they couldn’t control the balloon.
Others called it the “wandering balloon” in a pun that refers to the newly released Chinese sci-fi film called “The Wandering Earth 2.”
Still others used it as a chance to poke fun at U.S. defences, saying it couldn’t even defend against a balloon, and nationalist influencers leapt to use the news to mock the US. One wrote wryly: “The US., because of the balloon incident, delays Blinken’s visit to China.”
Censorship was visible on the topic — the “wandering balloon” hashtag on Weibo was no longer searchable by Saturday evening.
“The US is hyping this as a national security threat posed by China to the US. This type of military threat, in actuality, we haven’t done this. And compared with the U.S. military threat normally aimed at us, can you say it’s just little? Their surveillance planes, their submarines, their naval ships are all coming near our borders,” Chinese military expert Chen Haoyang of the Taihe Institute said on Phoenix TV, one of the major national TV outlets.
The balloon was spotted earlier over Montana, which is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, defense officials said.
President Joe Biden had declined to shoot down the balloon, following advice of defense officials who worried the debris could injure people below. Meanwhile, people with binoculars and telephoto lenses tried to find the “spy balloon” in the sky as it headed southeastward over Kansas and Missouri at 60,000 feet (18,300 meters).
China has denied any claims of spying, and said it is a civilian-use balloon intended for meteorology research. Experts have said that their response was feasible.
But analysts said the unexpected incident will not help the strained ties between the two countries, and particularly China’s initial response where it said they could not control the balloon and “regretted” that it unintentionally entered US space.
On Saturday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs again emphasised that the balloon’s journey was out of its control and urged the US to not “smear” it based on the balloon.
Wang said China “has always strictly followed international law, we do not accept any groundless speculation and hype. Faced with unexpected situations, both parties need to keep calm, communicate in a timely manner, avoid misjudgments and manage differences.”
Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore, said China’s apology did not appear sincere.
“In the meantime, the relationship will not improve in the near future … the gap is huge.”