The US could target Chinese companies linked to spy balloons
By Humeyra Pamuk, Michael Martina and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States will consider taking action against entities linked to the Chinese military that helped fly a Chinese spy balloon into US airspace last week, a senior State Department official said on Thursday.
Washington is confident that the maker of the Chinese balloon that was shot down by the US military off the US east coast last weekend has a “direct relationship” with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the official said in a statement.
White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre reiterated the notion that Washington would seek action, but the US government has not specified what action is being considered.
Jean-Pierre told reporters the United States would also examine broader efforts to “uncover and address” China’s major surveillance activities that pose a threat to US national security and allies and partners.
The FBI, which is spearheading efforts to analyze what was recovered from the balloon, told reporters in a briefing that it had received limited physical evidence and did not yet have enough information to assess its capabilities.
“It is very early for us in this process and the evidence that has been seized and presented to the FBI is extremely limited,” a bureau official said.
FBI officials said they still don’t have access to most of the “payload,” where most of the avionics likely carried, and that much of it remains underwater.
Separately, Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman highlighted the flight of the Chinese balloon as another sign of Beijing’s efforts to reshape the international order at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Thursday.
“This irresponsible act has fully demonstrated what we have long recognized: that the PRC (People’s Republic of China) has become more repressive at home and more aggressive abroad,” Sherman said at the hearing.
Sherman said Washington will continue to block China from using US technology to further its military modernization.
“The PRC is the only competitor with the intention and means to transform the international order,” Sherman said, adding that the balloon’s violation of US sovereignty and international law is the “latest example of that reality.”
Still, Sherman said she hoped Washington and Beijing could continue to work together on common concerns like climate change “at this difficult time.”
The spectacle of the Chinese balloon floating over the United States last week sparked political outrage in Washington and brought into focus China’s challenge to the United States and its allies.
It prompted Foreign Secretary Antony Blinken to cancel a trip to Beijing that both countries had hoped would mend torn ties. Blinken would have arrived in Beijing on Sunday.
Instead, Thursday’s numerous briefings and hearings highlighted the political pressure President Joe Biden’s administration remained under to address the incident.
Democratic and Republican US lawmakers slammed the US military and Biden administration for not shooting down the balloon when it first entered US airspace, instead waiting a week to do so. The House of Representatives voted 419 to 0 on a resolution condemning China for the balloon incursion.
US lawmakers have asked the Biden administration for more information on the incident.
“I hate disappointing you. We didn’t learn any more than what everyone always knew,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, after emerging from a secret briefing given by administration officials about the balloon Thursday.
The US Air Force shot down the balloon off South Carolina on Saturday, a week after it entered US airspace. China’s foreign ministry said it was a weather balloon that went off course and accused the United States of overreacting.
On Monday, the United States briefed 150 foreign diplomats in Washington and sent information to their missions around the world to share details of the balloon incident.
On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning dismissed US allegations that the balloon was part of a global spy fleet, saying the claim could be part of a “US information warfare against China”.
PLA LINKED MANUFACTURER
In the statement released by the Foreign Ministry, the senior official said the balloon manufacturer has a direct relationship with the Chinese military and is an approved supplier to the People’s Liberation Army.
The company also advertises balloon products on its website and hosts videos of past flights that appear to have flown over US airspace and the airspace of other countries, the official said, without naming the company.
The official said the United States had collected high-resolution images of the balloon from U-2 aircraft flybys, showing it was capable of conducting signals intelligence operations.
China has conducted similar surveillance flights over more than 40 countries on five continents, the official said.
State Department spokesman Ned Price later said at a briefing that the activities took place “over the course of several years”.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Patricia Zengerle, Michael Martina, David Brunnstrom, Sarah N. Lynch, Nandita Bose, Paul Grant, and Kanishka Singh; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Don Durfee, and Lisa Shumaker)