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Canadian pilots were warned of ‘untethered balloon’ amid China surveillance concerns

Canadian pilots flying over the Prairie provinces, Ontario and Quebec were warned to be on the lookout for an “untethered balloon” on Thursday — warnings that came as a suspected Chinese spy balloon was also reported in American airspace.

Sources had told Global News the surveillance balloon spent time in Canadian airspace, but the details of when and for how long have not been made clear by Canadian authorities.

But a series of NOTAMs (Notice to Air Mission) sent by NAV Canada and reviewed by Global News warned pilots flying into and out of airports in Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City to exercise “vigilance” over the object.

The warnings were issued Thursday evening and also covered several smaller regional airports between western Alberta and eastern Quebec, and are in effect until Feb. 6.

U.S. defence officials confirmed on Friday they expect the surveillance balloon to remain in U.S. airspace over the next few days. Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder told reporters the balloon contained surveillance equipment along with a “large payload” underneath it, while not elaborating on what that payload could be.

Later Friday, the Pentagon acknowledged reports of a second balloon flying over Latin America. “We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement, declining to offer further information such as where it was spotted.

Canadian officials confirmed on Friday that the movements of a high-altitude surveillance balloon are being actively tracked by NORAD. Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly said in a Twitter post Friday she had spoken to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken about the matter.

Canada, Joly said, is working with the U.S. to “take all necessary measures to safeguard Canada’s sensitive information.”

The incident, as well as the American reports, prompted Ottawa to summon China’s ambassador to Canada.

“Yesterday, China’s Ambassador to Canada was summoned by officials at Global Affairs Canada regarding the situation described in the statement issued by the Department of National Defence,” said Maéva Proteau, a spokesperson for Joly, in an email to Global News Friday.

“We will continue to vigorously express our position to Chinese officials through multiple channels.”

Department of National Defence officials said that Canadians are safe and that the federal government is taking steps to ensure the security of its airspace, including the monitoring of a second potential incident.

“Canada’s intelligence agencies are working with American partners and continue to take all necessary measures to safeguard Canada’s sensitive information from foreign intelligence threats,” a spokesperson for the defence department said on Thursday night.

Blinken was set to visit Beijing this weekend, and his visit would have made him the highest-ranking member of Biden’s administration to visit China. On Friday, he confirmed he had informed his Chinese counterpart that he was postponing the trip “in light of China’s unacceptable action.”

“Conditions were not conducive for a constructive visit at this time,” Blinken said during a media appearance with South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin at the White House.

He added the Pentagon and U.S. State Department officials are “confident this is a Chinese surveillance balloon” and have taken steps to protect against the collection of sensitive U.S. information.

Blinken would not speculate on when the trip might be rescheduled, stressing the “first step” the U.S. is focused on “is getting the surveillance asset out of our airspace.”

Canadian officials have yet to publicly confirm when or where the balloon entered Canadian airspace. But the locations confirmed by the NOTAMs appear to align with the reported locations of the balloon over the U.S.

On Thursday, the balloon was spotted over Montana, which is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.

A photograph of a large white balloon lingering over the area was captured by The Billings Gazette. The balloon could be seen drifting in and out of clouds and had what appeared to be a solar array hanging from the bottom, said Gazette photographer Larry Mayer.

On Friday, the balloon was reported to be flying about 18,300 metres (60,000 feet) as it headed eastward toward Kansas and Missouri.

China’s foreign ministry said on Friday that the balloon was for civilian meteorological and other scientific purposes, and that it regrets that the airship strayed into U.S. airspace. It added that it will continue to maintain communications with the United States to properly handle the unexpected situation.

The explanation was rejected by Pentagon spokesperson Ryder, who reiterated the object was a “surveillance balloon” that violated American airspace and international law.

A senior defence official told Pentagon reporters Thursday that the U.S. has “very high confidence” that the object was a Chinese high-altitude balloon and was flying over sensitive sites to collect information.

Ryder said NORAD continues to monitor the balloon’s course, which was over the centre of the continental United States. He did not elaborate further. The balloon was not a threat to people on the ground, he added.

Canadian political reaction started pouring in on Friday, with Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre calling the report “outrageous.”

“It’s outrageous, it’s very concerning that a hostile foreign government had a spy balloon in our airspace that continued to transit into the northwestern United States,” he told reporters in Ottawa.

“We as Canadians should never tolerate espionage by foreign regimes and we should work with our partners in the United States to hold the regime in Beijing accountable.”

Deputy Prime Minister said Canada’s intelligence agencies were working with their American partners to safeguard Canada from foreign intelligence threats.

“We take this very seriously,” she told reporters Friday afternoon.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advised against taking “kinetic action” because of risks to the safety of people on the ground, the Pentagon confirmed. President Joe Biden accepted that recommendation.

Biden declined to comment on the matter when questioned at an economic event. Two 2024 reelection challengers, former President Donald Trump, and Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador, said the U.S. should immediately shoot down the balloon.

Biden was first briefed about the Chinese surveillance balloon on Tuesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters. She did not shed light on why the administration waited until Thursday to make its concerns public.

The defence official said the U.S. has “engaged” Chinese officials through multiple channels and communicated the seriousness of the matter.

The balloon’s appearance adds to national security concerns among lawmakers over China’s influence in the U.S., ranging from the prevalence of the hugely popular smartphone app TikTok to purchases of American farmland.

Canadian relations with China have been tense over several years, intensifying in recent months over allegations of attempts to influence and interfere in Canadian affairs.

Global News reported on Nov. 7 that Canadian intelligence officials have warned Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that China has allegedly been targeting Canada with a vast campaign of attempted foreign interference, and RCMP have asked anyone with experience of Chinese influence through so-called “police stations” believed to be operating in Canada to come forward.

Late last year, Ottawa released its long-awaited Indo-Pacific strategy, with Joly calling China an “increasingly disruptive global power” in a region where multiple countries are showing major economic growth.

“The Indo-Pacific is the fastest growing economic region of the world. By 2030, it will be home to two-thirds of the global middle class and by 2040, it will account for more than half of the global economy,” Joly said.

“Every issue that matters to Canadians, our national security, our economic prosperity, democratic values, climate change or human rights will be shaped by the relationship Canada has with Indo-Pacific countries.”

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