The United States has detected a suspected high-altitude Chinese surveillance balloon flying over its territory, as confirmed by a senior defense official.
The discovery of the balloon, which is believed to belong to the People's Republic of China, has heightened concerns about Chinese espionage efforts and comes at a critical juncture.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due to travel to Beijing soon, following President Joe Biden's meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping last year.
The Pentagon has been monitoring the movement of the balloon over the northern U.S. for several days, and a spokesman has confirmed that the military is confident that it belongs to China.
"We are confident that this high-altitude surveillance balloon belongs to the [People's Republic of China]," Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said. "Instances of this activity have been observed over the past several years, including prior to this administration."
Despite its presence, senior military leaders, including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, have recommended against any kinetic action due to the risk to people on the ground.
President Biden has been informed of the balloon's presence and has sought military options to deal with it, but ultimately followed Milley's advice not to shoot it down.
The U.S. government believes that Chinese spy satellites in low Earth orbit can offer similar or better intelligence, reducing the value of any information that the high-altitude balloon can gather.
"The context for that was, it would put some things on station in the event that a decision was made to bring this down while it was over Montana," the official said. "So we wanted to make sure we were coordinating with civil authorities to empty out the airspace around that potential area."
The U.S. has engaged with the Chinese government through its diplomatic missions in Washington and Beijing. The senior defense official also confirmed reports about a ground stop at Billings Airport in Montana, and the mobilization of assets, including F-22s, in the event that a decision was made to bring the balloon down.
However, the strong recommendation of senior military leaders was not to take any action that would put people on the ground at risk.
One possible target for Chinese espionage is the fields of underground Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile silos in Montana.
The senior defense official stated on Thursday that the U.S. "will have options to deal with this balloon" if the risk level changes.