Chinese spy balloon spotted over Western

Paolo Romero - The Philippine Star

US WASHINGTON – The US is tracking a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that has been spotted over US airspace for a couple of days, but the Pentagon decided not to shoot it down over concerns of hurting people on the ground, officials said Thursday.

The discovery of the balloon puts a further strain on US-China relations at a time of heightened tensions.

A senior defense official told Pentagon reporters that the US has “very high confidence” it is a Chinese high-altitude balloon and it was flying over sensitive sites to collect information. One of the places the balloon was spotted was Montana, which is home to one of the nation’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.

Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, provided a brief statement on the issue, saying the government continues to track the balloon. He said it is “currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.”

He said similar balloon activity has been seen in the past several years. He added that the US took steps to ensure it did not collect sensitive information.

A senior administration official, who was also not authorized to publicly discuss sensitive information, said President Joe Biden was briefed and asked the military to present options. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advised against taking “kinetic action” because of risks to the safety of people on the ground. Biden accepted that recommendation.

The defense official said the US has “engaged” Chinese officials through multiple channels and communicated the seriousness of the matter.

The incident comes as Secretary of State Antony Blinken was supposed to make his first trip to Beijing, expected this weekend, to try to find some common ground. Although the trip has not been formally announced, both Beijing and Washington have been talking about his imminent arrival.

It was not immediately clear if the discovery of the balloon would impact Blinken’s travel plans.

The senior defense official said the US did get fighter jets, including F-22s, ready to shoot down the balloon if ordered to by the White House. The Pentagon ultimately recommended against it, noting that even as the balloon was over a sparsely populated area of Montana, its size would create a debris field large enough that it could have put people at risk.

It was not clear what the military was doing to prevent it from collecting sensitive information or what will happen with the balloon if it isn’t shot down.

In a letter sent Thursday to Austin, Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), wrote: “The fact that this balloon was occupying Montana airspace creates significant concern that Malmstrom Air Force Base and the United States’ intercontinental ballistic missile fields are the target of this intelligence gathering mission. ... It is vital to establish the flight path of this balloon, any compromised US national security assets and all telecom or IT infrastructure on the ground within the US that this spy balloon was utilizing.”

The defense official said the spy balloon was trying to fly over the Montana missile fields, but the US has assessed that it has “limited” value in terms of providing China intelligence it couldn’t already collect by other means, such as through spy satellites.

Drifting over Montana

The official would not specify the size of the balloon, but said it was large enough that despite its high altitude, commercial pilots could see it. All air traffic was halted at Montana’s Billings Logan International Airport from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, as the military provided options to the White House.

A photograph of a large white balloon lingering over the area was captured by The Billings Gazette, but the Pentagon would not confirm if that was the surveillance balloon. The balloon could be seen drifting in and out of clouds and had what appeared to be a solar array hanging from the bottom, said Gazette photographer Larry Mayer.

The defense official said what concerned them about this launch was the altitude the balloon was flying at and the length of time it lingered over a location, without providing specifics.

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte said he was briefed Wednesday about the situation after the Montana National Guard was notified of an ongoing military operation taking place in Montana airspace, according to a statement from the Republican governor and spokesperson Brooke Stroyke.

“From the spy balloon to the Chinese Communist Party spying on Americans through TikTok to CCP-linked companies buying American farmland, I’m deeply troubled by the constant stream of alarming developments for our national security,” Gianforte said in a statement.

The administration official said congressional leaders’ staffs were briefed on the matter Thursday afternoon. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), tweeted, “China’s brazen disregard for US sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed.”

China said Friday it was working to verify the facts around US claims that Beijing flew a spy balloon over its territory, warning against “hype” over the issue.

“Verification is under way” over the reports, foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told a regular briefing, adding that “until the facts are clear, making conjectures and hyping up the issue will not help to properly resolve it.”

“China is a responsible country and always abides strictly by international law. We have no intention of violating the territory or airspace of any sovereign country,” she said.

“(We) hope that both sides will handle (the situation) with mutual calm and prudence,” she added.

Tensions with China are particularly high on numerous issues, ranging from Taiwan and the South China Sea to human rights in China’s western Xinjiang region and the clampdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong. Not least on that list of irritants are China’s tacit support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its refusal to rein in North Korea’s expanding ballistic missile program and ongoing disputes over trade and technology.

Tuesday, Taiwan scrambled fighter jets, put its navy on alert and activated missile systems in response to nearby operations by 34 Chinese military aircraft and nine warships that are part of Beijing’s strategy to unsettle and intimidate the self-governing island democracy.

Twenty of those aircraft crossed the central line in the Taiwan Strait that has long been an unofficial buffer zone between the two sides, which separated during a civil war in 1949.

Beijing has also increased preparations for a potential blockade or military action against Taiwan, which has stirred increasing concern among military leaders, diplomats and elected officials in the US, Taiwan’s key ally.

The surveillance balloon was first reported by NBC News.

Some Montana residents reported seeing an unusual object in the sky around the time of the airport shutdown Wednesday, but it’s not clear that what they were seeing was the balloon.

From an office window in Billings, Chase Doak said he saw a “big white circle in the sky” that he said was too small to be the moon.

He took some photos, then ran home to get a camera with a stronger lens and took more photos and video. He could see it for about 45 minutes and it appeared stationary, but Doak said the video suggested it was slowly moving.

“I thought maybe it was a legitimate UFO,” he said. “So I wanted to make sure I documented it and took as many photos as I could.” –AP, AFP

By MICHAEL PUNONGBAYAN The Philippines and the United States have agreed to “restart” joint patrols in the South China Sea (SCS) in what visiting US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III said was meant to help address growing regional security challenges.

In a readout of Austin’s meeting on Thursday with Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez, it was revealed that the two countries “agreed to restart joint maritime patrols in the South China Sea to help address these challenges.”

There is no record of previous joint patrols in the South China Sea by the US and the Philippines – at least officially.

At the meeting, Austin reiterated the “ironclad” US commitment to Philippine security and reaffirmed the scope of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) as covering the Philippine armed forces, public vessels or aircraft anywhere in the South China Sea.

The readout is now posted on the official website of the US Department of Defense.

The agreement on joint patrols was reached after the two officials exchanged views on shared regional security challenges in the Indo-Pacific and underscored the importance of close operational coordination.

The DND has yet to provide more information about the planned conduct of joint maritime patrols with the US, whose vessels and warships have been regularly doing “friendly” passage in the South China Sea,  to Beijing’s consternation.

China has yet to issue a statement on the development as of press time.

Chinese Coast Guard and maritime militia vessels continue to encroach in Philippine waters unchallenged, harassing Filipino fishermen or issuing radio challenges to civilian vessels delivering provisions to a small Philippine military outpost on the grounded BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal.

In response, the Philippines has filed numerous diplomatic protests which Beijing has largely ignored.

During the meeting with Galvez, Austin also expressed his appreciation for the Philippines’ approval of US access to four more Philippine bases under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

“Both leaders noted that EDCA is a key pillar of alliance cooperation and supports combined training, exercises and interoperability between our forces to respond more effectively to natural disasters and other crises, including in the South China Sea,” according to the readout.

“Noting the $82 million that the United States has invested to date in infrastructure improvements at EDCA sites, both leaders agreed to move expeditiously to begin projects at the new EDCA sites,” it added.

Austin and Galvez also discussed the importance of enhancing the scale and coverage of combined exercises, as well as opportunities to improve alliance planning for regional crises.

“Both leaders agreed to look at opportunities to include other likeminded partners in cooperative defense activities. Secretary Austin expressed the Department’s continuing commitment to support development of advanced capabilities for the Armed Forces of the Philippines,” the readout said.

Unfounded criticism

As militant groups and others sectors opposed the granting to the US of greater access to Philippine bases, the Senate committees on foreign relations and on defense assured the public that the implementation of EDCA would help strengthen the country’s security and bring stability in the region.

Sen. Francis Tolentino, vice chairman of the foreign relations committee, said EDCA is part of the implementation mechanism of the MDT between the two countries and the announcement of new locations is just part of the continuing operation of the agreement forged in 2014 and affirmed by the Supreme Court.

“I don’t think it (EDCA locations) should alarm or irritate a foreign nation because I would see the EDCA as a mere reiteration of the MDT between the Philippines and the US which had been there since 1951,” Tolentino told reporters.

He said the agreement was not only consistent with the Constitution but also with international law and principles on peace to resolve differences among nations peacefully.

The EDCA’s continuing implementation was not about “posturing or gearing towards maintaining and strengthening military position,” he said, adding the agreement would also help ensure freedom of navigation in the West Philippine Sea.

The purpose of EDCA includes maritime domain awareness, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, the senator said.

He said fears of some kind of foreign intervention as raised by those opposing EDCA may be out of context.

“Intervention is part of geopolitical situation. All other countries are likewise intervening. So in a modern, global world, we have to take everything into account for purposes of international peace and security. So intervention in what sense? If it would involve rescue, disaster relief operations, that probably is also an intervention. Intervention that would degrade your sovereignty will perhaps be bad, but if to foster peace in a manner conducive to international law, there’s no problem with that,” he said.

Tolentino said EDCA can provide additional security for the country, including more space for fishermen, opportunities to explore and exploit natural resources in the West Philippine Sea and freedom of navigation.

“If you are talking of maintenance of peace in WPS, then it’s OK. If it helps ability of fishermen to fish in the area… ability of government to explore, exploit… freedom of navigation in that area, what’s wrong with that? I don’t see anything wrong as long as the parameters mentioned in EDCA will be followed,” he said.

He said EDCA would also help speed up the slow-moving modernization of the Armed Forces.

He said the Marcos administration’s renewing ties with the US was not another form of pivot as many might be thinking because the Duterte administration had simply “reinvigorated” relations with China but still implemented EDCA and the VFA.

“There’s no change in the relationship with China,” Tolentino said.

Beijing is claiming nearly the entire South China Sea that includes the WPS and has built several militarized artificial islands in these waters.

One of the new locations is reportedly far up north but Tolentino said northern Philippines has been the path of powerful typhoons in recent years and the country has long been maintaining some military presence in the area not only for territorial security but also to protect fishermen.

“We cannot avoid being part of a geopolitical conflict because of our location. We cannot isolate ourselves as part of the community of nations,” he said.

He said while EDCA needs no concurrence from the Senate, he strongly advised Malacañang to apprise the chamber of any amendments.

Meanwhile, Batangas Rep. Ralph Recto asked the Marcos administration not to keep Congress and the public blind on the latest developments in EDCA.

In a statement, Recto said the government should “brief Congress and tell the public” where these additional four bases would be.

“National security is not harmed by that candor. But any secrecy will deal transparency, an avowed hallmark of this administration, a serious blow,” he maintained.

Recto noted the government should also be transparent about the benefits and possible harm that EDCA may bring.

“The men from Washington who came to town said they would like to speed up EDCA’s implementation. If that is what they desire, then what is the ultimate goal?” he added. “Are we being built up as their armed garrison in the Pacific as a tripwire to Chinese expansionism?”

By agreeing to EDCA plus, he said, defense officials would have first studied its ramifications, specifically the potential reaction from other states, and planned responses.

“What triggered the expansion? Are the nine bases the sum of our fears?  ... In principle, this is an administration prerogative I support. But I ask that whatever agreements be made public and the pros and cons be told,” Recto added.

Gabriela party-list Rep. Arlene Brosas lambasted the increase in such bases under EDCA.

“It is an alarming flashpoint in America’s military expansionism in Southeast Asia which brings the country and whole ASEAN region closer to instability, and further places the Philippines deeper in the midst of US-China tensions,” she said.

Brosas pointed out that allowing the EDCA sites to increase to nine is

“practically allowing increased US military rotational presence across the country.”

“We strongly denounce the Marcos Jr. administration’s exceptionally warm reception of Washington’s pivot, further surrendering our country’s sovereignty to support US geopolitical interest in exchange for loans, foreign aid and military financing,” she added.

The lawmaker warned that increasing the EDCA bases will “usher in more US troops and military assets on Philippine territory.”

Brosas also expressed concerns that the possible increase in American soldiers in the country would make more Filipino women and members of the LGBTQIA+ more “vulnerable to sexual violence by US soldiers, taking into account the case of Jennifer Laude.”

Laude was a trans-woman who was drowned by Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton, of the US Marine in Olongapo City, on Oct. 11, 2014. –  Sheila Crisostomo


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