The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China claims ownership of second suspected spy balloon over Latin America

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning speaks during a news conference at the ministry on Monday in Beijing. (Mark R Cristino/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Chinese authorities have confirmed that an “unmanned aircraft” flying over Latin America originated in China, even as Beijing stepped up its protests against the U.S. military’s decision to shoot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon that traversed the United States last week.

At a regular news briefing on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said the second balloon also came from China, but she claimed that it was used for civilian flight tests. “Due to the impact of weather and limited self-steering ability, this aircraft seriously deviated from its scheduled course,” Mao said.

The Pentagon has identified the vehicle as another suspected Chinese surveillance device, similar to the huge white globe spotted by civilians Wednesday as it hung over Montana. Beijing said that one was a weather balloon blown off course.

Asked why China had so much trouble keeping its balloons in check, Mao said she was “not an expert” and could only say that “this is not the first time that control was lost of balloons used for scientific purposes by the international community.”

President Biden on Feb. 6 said that it was always his position to shoot down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon. (Video: The Washington Post)

Separately on Monday, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng lodged “solemn representations” with the U.S. Embassy in Beijing over the use of an F-22 Raptor to shoot down the balloon that had slowly drifted across U.S. continental airspace over multiple days. “The facts are very clear that this incident was accidental and it must not be misrepresented,” he said. “China urges the U.S. side not to escalate or broaden a tense situation.”

After initially expressing regret for the appearance of the balloon, China hardened its stance over the weekend with accusations that the U.S. response was an “overreaction” and “seriously violated international practices.” The Chinese military said it reserved the right to use unspecified “necessary means” in similar situations.

Chinese authorities claimed ownership of a second suspected spy balloon on Feb. 6 that was seen flying over Costa Rica. (Video: The Washington Post)

After U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delayed a planned trip to Beijing because of the incident, China has sought to both contain diplomatic fallout and signal resolve to domestic audiences.

Although few hoped for a significant detente, Blinken’s visit would have been the first in five years by America’s top diplomat to China and would have helped capitalize on a meeting between President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in November.

After a decade of increasingly bellicose foreign policy, Xi began his third term in office with a display of diplomatic pragmatism spurred, analysts said, by a desire to ease international tensions and focus on economic and covid troubles at home.

Instead of improved relations, China now finds itself struggling to prevent a lingering crisis spreading beyond its relationship with the United States.

So far, however, Latin American countries have mostly remained silent about the second balloon. Colombia’s air force said Saturday that it had monitored an object flying at 55,000 feet across its airspace.

Within China, nationalist Chinese commentators have piled on with memes mocking the United States and unsubstantiated theories to back up their claims that the incident demonstrates American weakness.

Zhanhao, one of the most popular current-affairs blogs on the social media platform WeChat, declared that the United States “had not discovered” the balloon when it entered U.S. airspace and merely got lucky. “This is like advertising a weakness in American anti-air defenses.” If a country wants to attack the United States, it only needs to “develop a ‘research’ balloon,” the article said.

The article didn’t mention that U.S. officials considered shooting the balloon down earlier but decided to wait until it was over open water to avoid the risk of debris hitting people on the ground.

But Mao, the ministry spokeswoman, suggested Monday that it was China that had been unaware of the balloon entering U.S. airspace. Asked when Chinese authorities noticed the balloon had gone off course, she said, without elaborating, “after the U.S. side reported it, we immediately investigated.”

Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.