Catholic lawmaker calls for ‘frank and sober’ national security conversation following suspected Chinese spy balloon

by Kate Scanlon

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — The U.S. government is tracking a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon flying at high altitudes over the continental U.S., defense officials said Feb. 2 and 3. The situation is increasing tensions in already fraught U.S.-China relations, and prompted one Catholic lawmaker to call for a “frank and sober” discussion about China.

“The Chinese Communist Party’s spy balloon flying over our country is a serious national security incursion that must have decisive consequences,” Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China and a longtime Catholic lawmaker, said in a Feb. 3 statement.

Defense officials said the balloon was flying at an altitude of about 60,000 feet over the center of the continental United States, traveling in an easterly direction.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters at a press conference that the balloon “has violated U.S. airspace and international law, which is unacceptable.”

Ryder said the balloon is carrying surveillance gear and a payload. He indicated that officials will not attempt to strike the balloon since it is not posing a threat to persons or aircraft, and a strike could lead to a debris field that could harm persons or property.

“Once the balloon was detected, we acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information,” he added.

The U.S. State Department said its Secretary Antony Blinken postponed a planned trip to Beijing over the incident.

Smith said, “It is long past time that we as a nation have a more frank and sober conversation about the challenges and the costs of a strategic competition with China.”

The Biden administration must “immediately take bold action to counter the great and growing threat posed by Xi Jinping’s Communist regime and safeguard our national security and the livelihoods of the American people,” Smith added.

“Communist dictatorship that brutally abuses, tortures and kills its own people cannot be trusted or appeased,” Smith said. “I will continue to work tirelessly to protect our great nation from those who seek to harm or destroy it and ensure that the U.S. always stands for freedom, justice, and the protection of human rights against the rising tide of authoritarianism.”

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Feb. 3 that “we are tracking closely and keeping all options on the table.”

China’s foreign ministry issued a statement claiming the balloon is “civilian in nature, used for meteorological and other scientific research,” and blew off course due to “the influence of westerly winds and its limited control capability.”

“China regrets that the airship strayed into the United States by mistake due to force majeure. China will continue to maintain communication with the U.S. side to properly handle this accident,” the statement said.

Jean-Pierre said the administration noted the statement of regret, “but the presence of this balloon in our airspace, it is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law, and it is unacceptable this occurred.”

Following reports that the balloon was in U.S. airspace above Billings, Montana, near to locations of U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile silos and strategic bomber bases, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said in a statement, “This provocation is completely unacceptable, and I am in close contact with Department of Defense and Intelligence officials.”

“We are still waiting for real answers on how this happened and what steps the administration took to protect our country, and I will hold everyone accountable until I get them,” Tester said.

As of publication Feb. 3, the Chinese surveillance balloon had drifted over Missouri and Kansas, states that are home to significant U.S. military installations.

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