Pentagon catches suspected Chinese spy balloon flying over US, opts not to shoot it down

The Pentagon is tracking a suspected Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon over the continental United States, a senior defense official said on Thursday.

The Pentagon has been tracking the balloon for several days as it made its way over the northern United States, Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said. He added that the US military decided against shooting the balloon down.

"The balloon is currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground," Ryder said.

"We are confident that this high-altitude surveillance balloon belongs to the [People's Republic of China]," the senior defense official said. "Instances of this activity have been observed over the past several years, including prior to this administration."

The official said the US government has engaged with the Chinese government both through the Chinese embassy in Washington and the US diplomatic mission in China.

The balloon "does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground," Ryder said.

The senior defense official added that it was the "strong recommendation" of senior military leaders, including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, "not to take kinetic action due to the risk to safety and security of people on the ground from the possible debris field."

Officials assessed that the balloon has "limited additive value" from an intelligence collection perspective, the official said.

The news comes as Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to travel to Beijing in the coming days, a significant trip meant to follow up on President Joe Biden's meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping last year. The conversation between the two leaders was "open and candid," Biden said at the time, adding that while he was not "suggesting this is kumbaya," he didn't believe there's need for concern of "a new Cold War."

Tensions between the US and China escalated in August last year with the visit of then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan, which resulted in China's announcement of military exercises at the same time.