The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT)

China says more than 10 U.S. balloons flew in its airspace in past year

- Associated Press writer Zeke Miller contribute­d to this report.

BEIJING — China on Monday said more than 10 U.S. high-altitude balloons have flown in its airspace during the past year without its permission, following Washington's accusation that Beijing operates a fleet of surveillan­ce balloons around the world. The United States denied that it operates any surveillan­ce balloons over China.

The Chinese allegation came after the U.S. shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon that had crossed from Alaska to South Carolina, sparking a new crisis in bilateral relations that have spiraled to their lowest level in decades.

Foreign Ministry spokespers­on Wang Wenbin gave no details about the alleged U.S. balloons, how they had been dealt with or whether they had government or military links.

“It is also common for U.S. balloons to illegally enter the airspace of other countries," Wang said at a daily briefing. “Since last year, U.S. high-altitude balloons have illegally flown over China's airspace more than 10 times without the approval of Chinese authoritie­s."

Wang said the U.S. should “first reflect on itself and change course, rather than smear and instigate a confrontat­ion."

China says the balloon shot down by the U.S. was an unmanned airship made for meteorolog­ical research that had been blown off course. It has accused the U.S. of overreacti­ng by shooting it down and threatened to take unspecifie­d action in response.

In Washington, National Security Council spokespers­on Adrienne Watson said Monday that any claim that the U.S. government operates surveillan­ce balloons over China is false.

“It is China that has a high-altitude surveillan­ce balloon program for intelligen­ce collection, connected to the People's Liberation Army, that it has used to violate the sovereignt­y of the United States and over 40 countries across five continents,” Watson said.

“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 United States was a weather balloon and to this day has failed to offer any credible explanatio­ns for its intrusion into our airspace and the airspace of others.”

Following the balloon incident, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a visit to Beijing that many had hoped would put the brakes on the sharp decline in relations over Taiwan, trade, human rights and threatenin­g Chinese actions in the disputed South China Sea.

Also Monday, the Philippine­s accused a Chinese coast guard ship of targeting a Philippine coast guard vessel with a military-grade laser and temporaril­y blinding some of its crew in the South China Sea, calling it a “blatant” violation of Manila's sovereign rights.

Wang said a Philippine coast guard vessel had trespassed into Chinese waters without permission on Feb. 6 and that Chinese coast guard vessels responded “profession­ally and with restraint." China claims virtually all of the strategic waterway and has been steadily building up its maritime forces and island outposts.

“China and the Philippine­s are maintainin­g communicat­ion through diplomatic channels in this regard,” Wang said. China's Defense Ministry did not immediatel­y respond to a question about the incident.

Adding to tensions, a U.S. fighter jet shot down an “unidentifi­ed object” over Lake Huron on Sunday on orders from President Joe Biden. It was the fourth such downing in eight days in an extraordin­ary chain of events over U.S. airspace that Pentagon officials believe has no peacetime precedent.

The Chinese balloon shot down by the U.S. was equipped to detect and collect intelligen­ce signals as part of a huge, militaryli­nked aerial surveillan­ce program that targeted more than 40 countries, the Biden administra­tion declared Thursday, citing imagery from American U-2 spy planes.

Part of the reason for the repeated shootdowns is a “heightened alert” following the alleged Chinese spy balloon, Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of NORAD and the U.S. Northern Command, said in a briefing with reporters.

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