WASHINGTON – The downing of a huge Chinese balloon off the United States coast, followed by the shoot-downs of two smaller objects over Alaska and Canada – and another over Lake Huron on Sunday – have raised concerns about North American security and further strained relations with China.
Here is what we know so far:
What were the four objects?
The drama began in late January, when a giant Chinese balloon – dubbed a spy craft by US officials – drifted for days through US skies before it was shot down on Feb 4 by an F-22 jet off the South Carolina coast.
China insisted the balloon was conducting weather research.
The Pentagon said it had a gondola the size of three buses and weighing around 1 tonne, and that it was equipped with multiple antennas and had solar panels large enough to power several intelligence-gathering sensors.
Then last Friday, US fighter jets downed another object off northern Alaska, the military said, adding that it was “within US sovereign airspace over US territorial water”. It lacked any system of propulsion or control, officials said.
Last Saturday, a US F-22 jet, acting on US and Canadian orders, downed a “high-altitude airborne object” over Canada’s central Yukon territory, about 160km from the US border.
The two countries said it posed a threat to civilian flights.
Canada described it as cylindrical and smaller than the initial balloon. Canadian Defence Minister Anita Anand would not speculate on whether it originated from China.
On Sunday, US President Joe Biden ordered US warplanes to shoot down an unidentified object over Lake Huron “out of an abundance of caution”, a senior administration official said.
The object was described as an octagonal structure with strings hanging off it, and was not deemed to be a military threat to anything on the ground, but could have posed a hazard to civil aviation as it flew at about 6,000m over Michigan, the official added.
US Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, who was briefed by the Biden administration following the incident over the Yukon, said on Sunday – before the Lake Huron incident – that the previous two objects were likely balloons, “but much smaller than the first one”, both flying at around 12,200m.
Officials described the second and third objects as about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.
Only the first object so far has been attributed to Beijing.
What has been recovered?
Military teams working from planes, boats and mini submarines are scouring the shallow waters off South Carolina for the first object, and military images showed the recovery of a large piece of balloon.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is taking custody of the debris for analysis.
Operations to recover the second object continue on sea ice near Deadhorse, Alaska.
“Arctic weather conditions, including wind chill, snow and limited daylight, are a factor,” the military said.
Ms Anand said on Saturday that recovery teams – backed by a Canadian CP-140 patrol aircraft – are searching for debris from the third object in the Yukon.
The Pentagon said the FBI is working closely with Canadian police. No information was immediately available about recovery of the fourth object.
What was the objects’
US officials say images of the first balloon show it had surveillance equipment that could intercept telecommunications.
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said it was intended “to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States”.
A former chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mr Michael Mullen, suggested China, or some in its military leadership, intentionally wanted to subvert an impending visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The US has said the balloons were part of a fleet that has spanned five continents.
Some analysts say it may be the start of a major Chinese surveillance effort targeting foreign military capabilities ahead of possible acute tensions over Taiwan in the coming years.
Why so many objects now?
Analysts said US and Canadian intelligence constantly receive huge amounts of raw data, and generally screen some out to focus on the threat of incoming missiles, not slow-moving objects like balloons.
“Now, of course, we’re looking for them. So I think we’re probably finding more stuff,” Mr Jim Himes, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told NBC.
Officials have said three balloons are now known to have briefly flown over US territory during Mr Donald Trump’s administration – undetected at the time – and one earlier in Mr Biden’s term.
What is their impact
on US-China ties?
The US scrapped Mr Blinken’s visit, intended to stabilise severely strained relations, and has sanctioned six Chinese entities believed to support military spy balloon programmes.
Beijing denounced the first balloon’s downing, saying it “seriously violated international practice”.
It reserved the right “to use necessary means to deal with similar situations”.
There has been no Chinese reaction to the latest downings. AFP