U.S. sites of interest visited by past Chinese balloons, Pentagon says

WASHINGTON, Feb 8 (Reuters) - Four previous Chinese spy balloon flights over the United States passed over sites that would be of interest to Beijing, the Pentagon said on Wednesday, without elaborating on whether they passed over military bases.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington was gaining more information "almost by the hour" on the Chinese spy balloon shot down off the U.S. East Coast on Saturday. He said the United States will share relevant findings with Congress and allies around the world.

The head of NATO told a joint news conference with Blinken the flight of the Chinese balloon over the United States last week confirmed a pattern of Chinese behavior and the need to be aware of the constant risk of Chinese intelligence activity.

Pentagon spokesperson Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said Washington was aware of the four past flights before it detected the latest Chinese balloon, which triggered political outrage in the United States and caused Blinken to cancel a trip to Beijing that both countries had hoped would help mend frayed ties.

China condemned the shooting down of the balloon, which it said it was a civilian air vessel and accused Washington of overreacting.

"They were over sites that would be of interest to the Chinese," Ryder told reporters.

He said U.S. Navy ships, led by the USS Carter Hall and including unmanned underwater vehicles, were still recovering the debris and on Tuesday divers and explosive technicians carried out underwater collection and survey activities.

Blinken said information about the balloon shot down on Saturday had already been shared with dozens of countries as it was part of broader program that had "violated the sovereignty of countries across five continents."

He said that he and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had discussed "the systemic and tactical challenges China presents to alliance and the broader international system."

Stoltenberg said China had invested heavily in new military capabilities.

"And we've also seen increased Chinese intelligence activities in Europe. Again, different platforms: they use satellites, they use cyber, and as we've seen over the United States, also balloons. So we just have to be vigilant," he said.

"We need to be aware of the constant risk of Chinese intelligence and then step up what we do to protect ourselves," Stoltenberg added.

Washington wants to reschedule Blinken's trip, and the secretary of state avoided a specific answer when asked if Chinese leader Xi Jinping was aware of the balloon flights.

"As to who's responsible for that, China is," he said. "And it doesn't matter on one level, which individuals may or may not have been responsible. The fact is China engaged in this irresponsible action, a violation of our sovereignty and territorial integrity and international law."

A senior U.S. general said on Monday the military had been unable to detect previous spy balloons in real time before the one that appeared on Jan. 28 and called it an "awareness gap."

The Pentagon said over the weekend that Chinese spy balloons had briefly flown over the United States at least three times during President Donald Trump's administration and one previously under President Joe Biden.

The White House has downplayed any drastic effect the incident would have on U.S.-China relations. Biden himself said on Monday that the issue had not weakened relations.

Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Rami Ayyub, David Brunnstrom and Simon Lewis; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Don Durfee

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Thomson Reuters

Phil Stewart has reported from more than 60 countries, including Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, China and South Sudan. An award-winning Washington-based national security reporter, Phil has appeared on NPR, PBS NewsHour, Fox News and other programs and moderated national security events, including at the Reagan National Defense Forum and the German Marshall Fund. He is a recipient of the Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence and the Joe Galloway Award.

Thomson Reuters

National security correspondent focusing on the Pentagon in Washington D.C. Reports on U.S. military activity and operations throughout the world and the impact that they have. Has reported from over two dozen countries to include Iraq, Afghanistan, and much of the Middle East, Asia and Europe. From Karachi, Pakistan.