Chinese surveillance balloon over U.S. raises tensions in already strained relationship

Defense Department officials are tracking a suspected Chinese spy balloon that is making its way across the central part of the U.S. Senior officials say it’s maneuverable, designed for surveillance and Beijing was “trying to fly this balloon over sensitive sites.” Secretary of State Blinken decided to postpone a high-profile trip to China in response. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Turning now to our other lead story tonight, Secretary Blinken decided to postpone a high-profile trip to Beijing this weekend, in response to what the U.S. calls a Chinese spy balloon currently floating eastward across the country.

    Nick Schifrin has that story.

  • Man:

    It's about 5:30 on Wednesday, February 1, 2023.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It was first spotted over Montana.

  • Man:

    I have no idea what this thing is. I hope it is in focus.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This morning spotted 1,000 miles to the southeast above St. Joseph, Missouri. The U.S. calls it a spy balloon. Beijing today called it a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological purposes, that deviated far from its plan course.

    "The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship in the U.S. airspace due to force majeure," or uncontrolled forces.

    But senior U.S. officials say it is maneuverable, designed for surveillance, and Beijing was — quote — "trying to fly this balloon over sensitive sites." Montana is home to one of the U.S.' three intercontinental ballistic missile silos.

    Yesterday, the U.S. mobilized F-22 jets. But administration officials says President Biden took his military advisers advice and decided not to shoot the balloon down because of the risk to people on the ground.

  • Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, Pentagon Press Secretary:

    We do recognize that any potential debris field would be significant and potentially cause civilian injuries or deaths or significant property damage.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled what would have been the most senior trip of the Biden administration to China.

    Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State: What this has done is created the conditions that undermine the purpose of the trip, including ongoing efforts to build a floor under the relationship and to address a broad range of issues that are of concern to the American people, I believe to the Chinese people, and certainly as well to people around the world.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    U.S. officials say China has sent spy balloons over the U.S. before, but never for this extended period of time and never right before a secretary of state visit.

  • Antony Blinken:

    The most important thing right now in the moment is to see that this surveillance asset gets out of our airspace.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Representative Mike McCaul said the administration should have shut it down earlier. "This balloon should have never been allowed to enter U.S. airspace. It now poses a direct and ongoing national security threat to the U.S. homeland."

  • Paul Fetkowitz, Kaymont Consolidated Industries:

    It's certainly not a standard weather balloon. That's a given.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Paul Fetkowitz owns Kaymont Consolidated Industries, the largest American provider of meteorological balloons to the U.S. government, including the military

  • Paul Fetkowitz:

    We can see on it that there's solar arrays to have a battery power to supply power to maybe a camera, maybe a heat source. The fact that they don't want us to gently bring the balloon down in our territory and have us go grab it for them is — it's kind of saying something to me that they don't want — they don't want anybody to get their hands on this balloon.

  • Man:

    We got this weird thing above us. This thing is weird.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The current trajectory shows the balloon will float toward the Atlantic Ocean. U.S. officials won't reveal their plans, other than to say they're monitoring it.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

  • Man:

    It is not the moon.

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