Taiwan says Chinese ‘weather balloon’ spotted over Taiwan Strait ahead of crucial election

Taiwan says Chinese balloon travelled eastward for about an hour before disappearing

Maroosha Muzaffar
Friday 08 December 2023 09:30 GMT
China threatens response after US shoots down 'spy' balloon

Taiwan said it spotted a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon crossing the sensitive median line in the Taiwan Strait on Friday, just a month ahead of the island’s presidential election.

Taiwan’s defence ministry revealed that on the night of 7 December, Chinese fighter jets crossed the median line, an unofficial barrier that Chinese planes regularly traverse.

The ministry also reported that a Chinese balloon approximately 101 nautical miles southwest of Keelung, Taiwan, travelled eastward for about an hour before disappearing.

It said 26 Chinese military aircraft were detected, along with 10 Chinese navy ships, in the 24 hours before 6am Friday. Of the aircraft, 15 had crossed the median line. Some also entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone outside the island’s airspace.

Taiwan’s defence minister Chiu Kuo-cheng mentioned that their “initial understanding” is that it was likely a weather balloon but emphasised the obligation to report such incidents to the public due to global concerns about the potential use of balloons for spying.

“Otherwise, if after other units or other countries have reported it, everyone will wonder why (we) did not report it. The defence ministry requires all our subordinate units to have a grasp of the enemy situation,” he added.

The ministry stated that Taiwan’s military observed the situation using combat aircraft, naval vessels, and land-based missile systems.

While Taiwan has issued threats to shoot down such balloons, the ministry did not disclose any information about the actions, if any, that were taken. The ministry noted that the balloon was observed flying at an altitude of around 6,400m (21,000 feet).

China has not yet responded to the allegations by Taiwan.

While military aircraft incursions happen regularly and serve to publicise China’s threat of using force to annex the self-governing island which it regards as its own territory, a balloon sighting is rare.

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s vice president Lai Ching-te and his running mate, Hsiao Bi-khim, both representing the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, currently hold a lead in the polls. China perceives them as separatists and has rejected Mr Lai’s attempts to initiate talks.

Taiwan foreign minister Joseph Wu said on Friday that China’s Taiwan affairs office was being “blatant” in its interference.

“They are commenting in very negative language about Vice-President Lai or the vice-presidential candidate Bi-khim Hsiao. Those kinds of statements have already told the Taiwanese people that they want to interfere in Taiwan’s election and they want to shape the results of the election,” Mr Wu said.

“They are doing all sorts of things to interfere in our election and we can expect more leading up to our polling date.”

Earlier this year, a Chinese spy balloon was reported to be flying over the United States for a couple of days. US mobilised fighter jets but military leaders advised president Joe Biden against shooting the balloon out of the sky for fear debris could pose a safety threat.

The United States took “custody” of the balloon when it entered the US airspace and had observed it with piloted US military aircraft.

Separately, Canada’s defense ministry also said at that time a “high-altitude surveillance balloon” was detected and that it was monitoring a “potential second incident”. In June, multiple images of what appeared to be spy balloons crossing Japan and Taiwan in east Asia since 2021 were found, months after China’s suspected spy balloon programme came to light.

Rare satellite images captured by artificial intelligence company Synthetaic and shared with the BBC showed several images of balloons crossing two of China’s neighbouring nations.

Additional reporting by agencies

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