In a Monday press briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning confirmed for the first time that a large white balloon transiting Latin American airspace is a Chinese vessel.
The Colombian air force has been tracking the balloon since Friday, though news of its presence was largely eclipsed by a different Chinese surveillance balloon that made headlines last week as it passed over the continental U.S. Sources told Global News the vessel — a suspected spy balloon — also spent time in Canadian airspace.
That balloon was shot down off the Carolina coast on Saturday and U.S. divers are currently working to recover the wreckage. China insisted the flyover was an accident, and that the balloon was a civilian aircraft.
Mao confirmed Monday that the balloon over Latin America is Chinese, and similarly described it as a civilian aircraft.
“Affected by weather and due to its limited self-control ability, the airship severely deviated from its set route and entered the space of Latin America and the Caribbean by accident,” Mao said.
“China is a responsible country. We have always strictly abided by international law. We have informed all relevant parties and appropriately handled the situation, which did not pose any threats to any countries.”
Over the weekend, Colombia’s air force announced they had spotted a large balloon flying over the northern part of the country, and tracked it until it left their airspace. The air force did not identify the balloon as Chinese at the time, but noted it didn’t represent any threat.
“It was determined that this element did not represent a threat to national security and defence, as well as to aviation safety,” Colombia’s air force said in the release in Spanish.
Costa Rica’s Civil Aviation Authority also spotted the balloon over its airspace, CNN reported.
The issue of these surveillance balloons, and whether they were used for meteorological research — or to spy on military sites in the U.S. and Canada — has driven yet another wedge between China and the West.
But according to David Cohen, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, this is hardly the first time such an incident has occurred.
“This is not the first time that this type of a device has been floated over the United States,” Cohen said, speaking in an interview with The West Block host Mercedes Stephenson, aired Sunday. “It has happened previously.”
In fact, soaring surveillance attempts from both China and Russia are a regular occurrence, the ambassador explained.
“They have low-altitude satellites that are constantly taking pictures of all of the United States and of all of Canada, for that matter,” Cohen said.
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Onlookers would also be “wrong” to think the balloon represents any kind of significant escalation from China, Cohen went on to say, adding that they “just haven’t heard about it before.”
Rather, the incident should be treated as a reminder to be “vigilant” when it comes to China.
“China is not a country to be trifled with,” Cohen said. “China is a is a potential threat and needs to be watched all the time.”
In response to the U.S. downing the suspected spy balloon, Vice-Foreign Minister Xie Feng said he lodged a formal complaint with the U.S. Embassy on Sunday — characterizing the incident as a “U.S. attack on a Chinese civilian unmanned airship by military force.”
“However, the United States turned a deaf ear and insisted on indiscriminate use of force against the civilian airship that was about to leave the United States airspace, obviously overreacted and seriously violated the spirit of international law and international practice,” Xie said.
The presence of the balloon in the skies above the U.S. dealt a severe blow to already strained U.S.-Chinese relations, which have been in a downward spiral for years. It prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to abruptly cancel a high-stakes Beijing trip aimed at easing tensions.
“What the U.S. has done has seriously impacted and damaged both sides’ efforts and progress in stabilizing Sino-U.S. relations since the Bali meeting,” Xie said, referring to a recent meeting between Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in Indonesia that many hoped would create positive momentum for improving ties that have plunged to their lowest level in years.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao also repeated China’s insistence that the object was a civilian balloon intended for meteorological research, had little ability to steer and entered U.S. airspace by accidentally diverging from its course. She also did not say what additional steps China intended to take in response to Washington’s handling of the issue and cancellation of Blinken’s trip, which would have made him the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have stated that this is completely an isolated and accidental incident caused by force majeure, but the U.S. still hyped up the incident on purpose and even used force to attack,” Mao said at a daily briefing. “This is an unacceptable and irresponsible action.”
Balloons thought or known to be Chinese have also been spotted in Japan. Japanese Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihiko Isozaki told reporters Monday that a flying object similar to the one shot down by the U.S. had been spotted at least twice over northern Japan since 2020.
— With files from Global News’ Rachel Gilmore and The Associated Press