'Chinese' spy balloon drifts over America - triggering both mystery and alarm

Watch the footage of the balloon captured drifting over Montana

This morning it has emerged that a 'Chinese' spy balloon is drifting over America.

It’s one of the more bizarre developments amid heightened US-Chinese tensions, and an espionage move by Beijing that has strategists here puzzled. 

The craft is high above the western part of the US, including over territory that is home to ballistic missile silos.  At one point, US F-22 jets were sent to assess the balloon and collect what data they could.

It is not the first such incursion by a spy balloon but it’s rare for such a craft to remain over the US for so long.

Nor is it clear what Beijing’s message is, although the flight comes just days after the US announced it was reactivating multiple military bases in the Philippines, including one on an island less than 100 miles from Taiwan.

It’s also causing a political row with Republicans, who are accusing President Biden of weakness in the face of China’s “brazen disregard for US sovereignty.”   

The leader of the House, Kevin McCarthy, says he is so alarmed he wants a meeting of the Gang of Eight, a reference to the eight most senior leaders in the US Congress, who sometimes convene to discuss highly sensitive intelligence issues.

It is suggested by some sources close to the Pentagon that there has been a discussion about US fighter jets shooting the balloon down. But it was decided that would risk lives on the ground. 

The balloon’s path is not entirely clear but the US quickly spotted the craft when it drifted over Alaska and northwest Canada.

Overnight it was reported to be above Montana, at an altitude so high that it posed no risk to civil aviation.

Republicans are certainly having a field day - with one Republican congressman calling Biden’s response “feckless.”

There is diplomatic sensitivity over the timing.  This weekend, the US Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, is due to be in China to meet with President Xi.

It will be a rare high-level encounter in Beijing that now looks even more fraught.

One Senator has called for Blinken to cancel the trip.

Intelligence experts say the balloon will have no real value since China can more easily - and more covertly - collect over such data from satellites.

But the US is still reported to be taking undisclosed counter-measures. 

America faces many national security threats, but this is not likely to be one of them.

This story has already taken the internet by storm, and given birth to numerous memes, and is certainly the most bizarre espionage story of the year so far. 

We will now see what President Biden says - and whether he risks shooting the balloon down.

China said on Friday it is looking into the reports about the balloon.

Foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said: "China is a responsible country and has always strictly abided by international laws, and China has no intention of violating the territory and airspace of any sovereign country.

"As for the balloon, as I’ve mentioned just now, we are looking into and verifying the situation and hope that both sides can handle this together calmly and carefully."

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