Chinese Spy Balloon Stokes Concern in Congress as Lawmakers Focus on Threats from Beijing

Senator Jon Tester at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
Senator Jon Tester speaks with Col. Jennifer Reeves, 341st Missile Wing commander, during his visit Feb. 19, 2019, at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Tristan Truesdell)

An alleged Chinese spy balloon that has been flying over the United States is raising alarm among lawmakers, who say the episode demonstrates the growing threat Beijing poses to the United States.

Much of the congressional reaction is coming from Republicans who are using the incident to argue the Biden administration is not aggressive enough toward China, including some prominent lawmakers agitating for the U.S. military to shoot the dirigible down -- despite the Pentagon saying doing so risks debris hurting civilians on the ground.

But there's also bipartisan concern that the event signals China is growing increasingly bold and dangerous.

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    "This provocation is completely unacceptable, and I am in close contact with Department of Defense and Intelligence officials," said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., over whose state the Pentagon said the balloon flew earlier this week. "We are still waiting for real answers on how this happened and what steps the administration took to protect our country, and I will hold everyone accountable until I get them. I will always defend Montana and our national security from hostile adversaries like China."

    This congressional session was already expected to be marked by an increased focus on China, which the Pentagon has labeled the primary national security challenge facing the United States.

    The House created a new committee focused on China, officially called the Select Committee on Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party. That committee is meant to look more holistically at military and economic competition with Beijing than the existing committee structure, where several panels looked at siloed pieces of the issue.

    The House Armed Services Committee is also using its first hearing of the congressional session to hear expert testimony on "The Pressing Threat of the Chinese Communist Party [CCP] to U.S. National Defense," a sign of the committee's priorities for the year.

    That increased attention on China comes after Congress had already been stepping up its work to compete with Beijing, particularly with efforts to shore up Taiwan's defenses in the midst of fears China could try to invade the island in the not-too-distant future. For example, the defense policy bill approved in December authorized $10 billion in grants for Taiwan to buy American-made weapons and called for the Pentagon and the State Department to craft a comprehensive program of U.S. military training for Taiwan.

    But the balloon incident is sure to hone Congress' focus on China even more.

    "The Chinese Communist Party should not have on-demand access to American airspace," China Committee Chairman Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., and ranking member Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., said in a joint statement Thursday night. "Indeed, this incident demonstrates that the CCP threat is not confined to distant shores -- it is here at home and we must act to counter this threat."

    The Pentagon publicly revealed the presence of the balloon over the United States on Thursday evening, saying it had been over Montana the day before. While officials have not disclosed specifically what they believe China is spying on, they have said the flight path brings the balloon over "sensitive sites," and Montana is home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, which houses some of the nation's intercontinental ballistic missiles.

    As of Friday, the balloon had moved eastward above the central United States, Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said during a news briefing. Ryder would not disclose a more specific location, but the National Weather Service said Friday a "large balloon" that is not a weather service balloon was spotted from northwest Missouri, while Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., said it was above the northeast part of his state.

    On Friday, Chinese officials acknowledged the balloon was theirs, though they claimed it was a weather balloon blown off course by the wind. The Pentagon brushed off that explanation, with Ryder telling reporters that "the fact is we know that it's a surveillance balloon." He also said the balloon is "maneuverable," suggesting the craft is not simply riding the wind.

    "The balloon has violated U.S. airspace and international law, which is unacceptable," Ryder said.

    While this is not the first time U.S. officials have monitored a Chinese spy balloon in recent years, officials said this incident is different because the balloon has been lingering for a longer period than before.

    While U.S. officials debated shooting down the balloon, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley and U.S. Northern Command commander Gen. Glen VanHerck recommended President Joe Biden not order it shot down because of the possibility of debris hitting people and structures on the ground, a senior defense official told reporters in a briefing Thursday. Further, the Pentagon assessed the balloon provides China little added intelligence capability beyond its spy satellites and does not pose a threat to commercial aircraft or U.S. civilians on the ground.

    But that has not stopped some lawmakers from demanding the military bring down the balloon.

    "It was a mistake to not shoot down that Chinese spy balloon when it was over a sparsely populated area," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, tweeted Friday. "This is not some hot air balloon, it has a large payload of sensors roughly the size of two city buses & the ability to maneuver independently."

    Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, criticized the Pentagon for "not tak[ing] proactive measures to address this airspace incursion by the People's Republic of China."

    "No incursion should be ignored and should be dealt with appropriately," Wicker said in a statement.

    Ryder would not answer questions Friday on whether there are circumstances under which the military would shoot down the balloon, including when it's over a body of water and so at less risk of hitting something below.

    While the military continues to monitor the situation, lawmakers are demanding more information. Tester, who is the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee's defense subpanel, will receive a classified briefing next week, his office said.

    House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., also requested a briefing for the Gang of Eight, which consists of the speaker, the House minority leader, the Senate majority and minority leaders, and the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees.

    Even as some lawmakers fretted over the presence of the spy balloon, others downplayed that the activity represented a new threat.

    "I don't want the American people to think this is something new and that all of a sudden we have a concern that we didn't have before," Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., said Friday on CNN, noting China has had low-orbit spy satellites "for years." "Those concerns are there. They have to be mitigated. They have to be addressed. We have to confront the Chinese government."

    -- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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