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China has accused the United States of “illegally” flying high-altitude balloons into its airspace more than 10 times since January 2022, claims that drew an immediate rebuttal from the White House, as bilateral tensions flare in the fallout from a Chinese balloon that was shot down by American fighter jets after traveling across the continental US.
The accusation, made by the Chinese Foreign Ministry without evidence, comes less than a day after China said it was preparing to shoot down an unidentified object flying near its eastern coast.
At a regular news conference Monday, ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin claimed it is “common for US balloons to illegally enter other countries’ airspace.”
“Since last year alone, American high-altitude balloons have illegally crossed China’s airspace more than 10 times without the approval of relevant Chinese authorities,” Wang said.
It’s not clear why China did not publicize these details earlier, or whether it responded to the alleged intrusions when they occurred.
The White House denied Beijing’s accusation and described the claim as an attempt at damage control.
“Any claim that the US government operates surveillance balloons over the PRC is false. It is China that has a high-altitude surveillance balloon program for intelligence collection, that it has used to violate the sovereignty of the US and over 40 countries across 5 continents,” a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, Adrienne Watson, wrote on Twitter on Monday.
“This is the latest example of China scrambling to do damage control. It has repeatedly and wrongly claimed the surveillance balloon it sent over the US was a weather balloon and has failed to offer any credible explanations for its intrusion into our airspace, airspace of others,” Watson added.
Wang also accused the US of frequently sending warships and planes to carry out close-range reconnaissance against China, which he claimed amounted to a total of 657 times last year – and 64 times this January in the South China Sea.
“For the longest time, the US has abused its own technological advantages to carry out large-scale and indiscriminate wiretapping and theft of secrets from all over the world, including from its allies,” Wang said, adding that the US is “without a doubt the world’s largest surveillance habitual offender and surveillance empire.”
Wang made the comments in response to a question about the Chinese entity that owns the balloon downed by US fighter jets on February 4.
The spokesperson also lashed out at the move by the US Commerce Department on Friday to add six Chinese companies tied to the Chinese military’s aerospace programs to its Entity List, restricting them from obtaining US technology without government authorization.
“China is strongly dissatisfied with this and resolutely opposes it. We will take necessary measures to resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese enterprises and institutions,” Wang said.
He accused the US of “hyping up and exaggerating” the situation and “using it as a pretext to illegally sanction Chinese enterprises and institutions.”
‘Unidentified flying object’ near China’s coast
Meanwhile, maritime authorities in China’s Shandong province said Sunday they spotted an “unidentified flying object” above waters near the port city of Rizhao and were “preparing to shoot it down,” state-run news outlet The Paper reported.
In a text message to fishing vessels, maritime authorities in the neighboring port city of Qingdao told crews to be on alert to avoid danger and assist with debris recovery efforts if possible.
“If debris falls near your boat, please help take photos to collect evidence. If conditions allow, please help salvage it,” the marine development department of Qingdao’s Jimo district said in the message cited by The Paper.
The report did not specify what kind of object it was, where it might have come from or at what altitude it was flying.
As of Monday afternoon local time, Chinese authorities and state media had not provided any update, and it is unclear if the object has already been taken down.
But while details remain scant, the unidentified object has sparked intense interest on China’s tightly controlled social media, generating hundreds of millions of views. Many users followed state media reporting on the US’ response to the Chinese balloon.
Sources told CNN the device was part of a fleet of Chinese surveillance balloons, which the US intelligence community started tracking within the last year. So far, the US has detected suspected Chinese balloons over 40 countries across five continents, officials said.
Beijing maintains the device was a civilian research airship blown off course. In a stark contrast to the US, where the balloon set off serious public concerns, the topic became a subject of amusement on Chinese social media, with nationalists poking fun at the US over its response to a “weather” balloon.
China’s Foreign Ministry has accused the US of “overreacting” and “seriously violating international practice” in shooting down the Chinese balloon, while the Chinese Defense Ministry has said it “reserves the right to use necessary means to deal with similar situations.”
On Sunday evening, Chinese social media was filled with excitement, with many users waiting for the object floating off China’s coast to be taken down. “Thanks to the demonstration made by the US, we must report it in a high-profile manner when we shoot down (the object),” said a top comment on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform.
By Monday morning, the unidentified object had become the top trending topic on Weibo, with two related hashtags racking up more than 900 million views. Many wondered – some with a sense of disappointment – why authorities had not released any update on the shoot down.
“After waiting all night, why is there still no exciting news?” a comment asked.
China’s reported discovery of the unidentified object comes as the US and its allies ramp up scrutiny over airborne objects in their airspace.
Since Friday, the US has shot down three unidentified objects over the North American airspace – in the skies over Alaska, northern Canada and Lake Huron.
American defense officials have said these recent objects were not a “kinetic military threat,” but could pose a safety hazard to civilian aviation due to the altitude they were flying at.
“In light of the People’s Republic of China balloon that we took down last Saturday, we have been more closely scrutinizing our airspace at these altitudes, including enhancing our radar, which may at least partly explain the increase in objects that we detected over the past week,” said Melissa Dalton, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Hemispheric Affairs.
Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.