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China accuses U.S. of flying spy balloons into Chinese airspace more than 10 times

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin speaks at a press conference in Beijing on Jan. 11, 2023.
Kyodo via Reuters
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin speaks at a press conference in Beijing on Jan. 11, 2023.

TAIPEI, Taiwan — China claimed Monday that the United States flew spy balloons into Chinese airspace more than 10 times since January 2022 without Beijing's permission, accusations that further ratcheted up tensions between the two countries amid mutual allegations of surveillance.

U.S.-China relations are already on edge after the U.S. shot down a large, high-altitude balloon on Feb. 4 that it says was set aloft by China and which a State Department official says was part of a "fleet" of Chinese military balloons designed to conduct surveillance. China said the balloon was a civilian airship that drifted astray by accident.

China is now countering U.S. claims more vociferously with accusations of its own. At a regular press briefing on Monday in Beijing, Wang Wenbin, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, claimed that it is "common for U.S. balloons to illegally enter other countries' airspace."

The Chinese spokesperson also said the U.S. was using warships and planes to gather intelligence on China 657 times since the start of last year. All this was proof, Wang claimed, that the U.S. is "without a doubt the world's largest surveillance habitual offender and surveillance empire."

Wang warned the U.S. should "first reflect on itself and change course, rather than smear and instigate a confrontation."

John Kirby, spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council, said in a MSNBC interview on Monday that this claim was not true.

"Any claim that the US government operates surveillance balloons over the PRC is false. It is China that has a high-altitude surveillance balloon program for intelligence collection, that it has used to violate the sovereignty of the US and over 40 countries across 5 continents," wrote Adrienne Watson, another NSC spokesperson, on Twitter.

"This is the latest example of China scrambling to do damage control. It has repeatedly and wrongly claimed the surveillance balloon it sent over the US was a weather balloon and has failed to offer any credible explanations for its intrusion into our airspace, airspace of others," Watson continued.

Balloons similar to the one found above Montana last week have been spotted in recent years above Japan, India and Taiwan. China admitted a high-altitude balloon found above Latin America this month was its own, though it said the balloon was a civilian airship doing weather research.

Since Friday, U.S. forces have brought down three unidentified objects flying above the U.S. and Canada. American officials have not disclosed what kinds of objects they were or who sent them.

Aowen Cao contributed research from Beijing.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
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