The Chinese spy balloon shot down by the U.S. military appears to be part of a broad surveillance program run by Beijing, sources told CNN and The Washington Post.
The program, operated mostly out of China’s Hainan province by the country’s military, has for years also targeted Japan, India, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines, the Post reported, citing unnamed U.S. officials. Similar balloons have been spotted across five continents, according to the outlets.
China has denied the balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina was used for spying purposes, saying its main objective was meteorological research. The Pentagon said it was carrying sensors and other equipment.
The U.S. has been in contact with allies that may have been subject to similar operations.
The Pentagon downed the spy balloon Saturday under President Joe Biden’s orders after it drifted away from land.
Chinese Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe declined Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s request for a phone call on Tuesday to discuss the nations’ strained relationship.
The U.S. believes in “maintaining open lines of communication” between the two countries, especially amid heightened tension, said Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, a spokesperson for the Defense Department.
Meanwhile, teams at the FBI’s Academy in Quantico, Virginia, are going over the balloon debris recovered by U.S. Navy sailors. Specialists are reportedly studying whether the balloon had capabilities to store information or send signals in real time to China, according to CNN.
Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of the United States Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, along with other Biden administration officials, will brief lawmakers on the balloon on Wednesday and Thursday, according to The Associated Press.
John Kirby, the National Security Council’s coordinator at the White House, said the balloon was the fifth to operate over the U.S. since 2017. Of those five operations — excluding the latest — three occurred during the Trump administration and one during Biden’s time in office.
Trump officials, including former national security adviser John Bolton and former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, appeared surprised at the disclosure, and former President Donald Trump denounced it as “JUST FAKE DISINFORMATION.”
Biden officials have offered to brief former Trump administration officials on the balloons.
VanHerck blamed the failure to detect those earlier threats to a “domain awareness gap,” according to ABC News.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said that during Biden’s time in office, the U.S. “enhanced our surveillance of our territorial airspace.”
“We enhanced our capacity to be able to detect things that the Trump administration was unable to detect,” Sullivan added, offering no further details.
VanHerck defended the decision not to immediately attack the balloon when it first crossed into the U.S. in late January.
“I think you’ll see in the future that that timeframe was well worth its value to collect over,” VanHerck told reporters.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a planned trip to China after the incident.
“When the time permits, we’ll see that trip back on the books,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday.
Biden referenced the spy balloon during his State of the Union address on Tuesday evening.
“I am committed to work with China where it can advance American interests and benefit the world,” Biden said. “But make no mistake: As we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did.”