The Chinese military unit in charge of outer space and cyber warfare was involved in the operation of a balloon that flew over the continental United States before being shot down by US forces, several Chinese sources said Thursday.
Beijing has so far maintained the airship was being used for civilian weather research purposes. The Chinese military failed to notify the Foreign Ministry about its entry into US airspace, prompting the leadership of President Xi Jinping to call for enhanced communications, the sources said.
The reconnaissance balloon, developed by a space technology research unit under the government-affiliated Chinese Academy of Sciences, is designed to be used for both military and civilian purposes, but the unit is effectively led by the military, the sources said.
The unit has also flown spy balloons across the world, including in airspace over the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, they said.
In China, many space-related technologies are jointly developed and operated by the military and civilian sectors, but exactly how the technology is used often remains unclear.
On Feb. 2, the United States disclosed it was tracking what was believed to be a Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon that had been flying over the country for days.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said last Friday afternoon it was "gathering and verifying the facts," but claimed hours later that the balloon was a weather observation airship that unintentionally entered U.S. airspace, expressing regret over the incident.
The detection of the balloon by the United States led to Secretary of State Antony Blinken abruptly postponing his scheduled visit to Beijing until further notice.
China's leadership was alarmed by the seriousness of the unexpected development and has since required the balloon operator obtain prior approval from Xi personally in situations where an airship may enter the airspace of other countries or regions during periods when there are important events on the diplomatic schedule, the sources said.
Alongside being the leader of China's ruling Communist Party, Xi is also the chief of the Central Military Commission which oversees the People's Liberation Army.