What’s the deal with the Chinese balloon that was flying over the US?

On Thursday, the US said it was tracking a giant white balloon floating near a sensitive area in Montana

What’s the deal with the Chinese balloon that was flying over the US?
The suspected Chinese spy balloon drifts to the ocean after being shot down off the coast in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, U.S. February 4, 2023. REUTERS/Randall Hill

The backstory: The US and China have been trying to patch up tensions and create stronger diplomatic ties to work together on global issues like climate change, geopolitics and trade. A few months ago, China’s President Xi and US President Biden even met in person. But things are still rocky between the two nations. This weekend, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken planned to go to China to continue talks – the first visit by a secretary of state in five years.

More recently: On Thursday, the US said it was tracking a giant white balloon floating near a sensitive area in Montana where nuclear warheads are kept. Authorities determined it was from China and could be a surveillance craft. This led to Blinken canceling his trip to China, calling it an "irresponsible act." But China said it was just a civilian weather research balloon that ended up in US airspace by accident after it was blown off course.

The development: While Biden pretty much immediately approved a plan to shoot the balloon down, the Pentagon wanted to wait until it was over water so people on the ground wouldn't get hurt. On Saturday, the balloon was finally shot down by the US Air Force off the Carolina coast. Afterwards, officials examined it and said there were sensors and surveillance equipment inside. China wasn't happy about the balloon being shot down, saying the use of force was an "obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice," adding that it might "take further actions in response." The entire fiasco has gotten a ton of social media attention, and there are plenty of memes now, too. "Saturday Night Live" even spoofed it over the weekend.

Key comments:

"I would also note that while we took all necessary steps to protect against the PRC surveillance balloon's collection of sensitive information, the surveillance balloon's overflight of US territory was of intelligence value to us," said a US defense official in a press briefing. "I can't go into more detail, but we were able to study and scrutinize the balloon and its equipment, which has been valuable."

"They successfully took it down, and I want to compliment our aviators who did it," said US President Biden after the balloon was shot down.

"The Chinese side has repeatedly informed the US side after verification that the airship is for civilian use and entered the US due to force majeure - it was completely an accident," said China's foreign ministry in a statement a few hours after the balloon was shot down.

"The Chinese Communist Party government's actions that violate international law and violate the airspace and sovereignty of other countries should not be tolerated in a civilized international community," said Taiwan's foreign ministry.

"It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes," said China's foreign ministry on its website. "Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure."

NBC's "Saturday Night Live" spoofed the Chinese balloon fiasco over the weekend.