Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a UFO?
US defense officials are tracking what they suspect is a Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon floating above the United States, CNN reports.
According to Pentagon spokesman Patrick Ryder, the ballon has spent several days soaring over the northern United States, "traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground," as quoted by CNN.
The incident is likely to sour US-China relations even further. A geopolitical standoff in Taiwan and trade disputes have already weighed heavy on relations — and a suspected spy balloon floating over potentially sensitive areas isn't going to improve the situation.
It's especially noteworthy considering the number of reports of "unidentified aerial phenomena" we've come across over the last couple of years, with several Pentagon officials suggesting that China or Russia may have been behind them.
As for the balloon, China has since broken its silence, with the country's Foreign Ministry claiming that the ballon was a "civilian airship" designed for primarily meteorological purposes, the Associated Press reports.
According to the ministry's statement, the balloon only has limited maneuverability and "deviated far from its planned course" due to winds, adding that China regretted the unintended entry into US airspace.
"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," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said in a statement, as quoted by the AP.
Whether that will quell the Pentagon's concerns remains unclear. The Pentagon decided not to shoot it out of the sky citing safety concerns for civilians back on the ground.
The timing is especially unfortunate considering US secretary of state Antony Blinken was about to embark on his first trip to Beijing over the weekend to address worsening US-China relations due to trade disputes and the situation unfolding in Taiwan.
US lawmakers are using the opportunity to blast China for its blatant disregard for US airspace.
"China’s brazen disregard for U.S. sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed, and President Biden cannot be silent," Republican speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy tweeted.
It's too early to tell what the diplomatic fallout will end up being or whether Blinken will adjust his plans — but the balloon certainly represents an escalation, bound to keep US-China relations as frosty as ever.
READ MORE: Pentagon tracking suspected Chinese spy balloon over the US [CNN]
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