Officials in Japan and Taiwan Recall Strange Balloon Sightings, Now Eye China Connection

Chinese president Xi Jinping speaks in Beijing, China, 2017. Inset: A balloon flies in the sky over Billings, Mt., February 1, 2023. (Nicolas Asfouri, Chase Doak/via Reuters)

There was one sighting over a Taipei airport that doubles as a military base, a meteorological official told Taiwanese media.

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There was one sighting over a Taipei airport that doubles as a military base, a meteorological official told Taiwanese media.

T he saga of the high-altitude balloon believed to have been a Chinese surveillance device over America has renewed interest in similar incidents around the world — potentially explaining previous sightings of mysterious objects in the skies above Taiwan and Japan.

Officials in each country have variously called for, or announced the launch of, investigations into the incidents.

Following the takedown of the balloon over the Atlantic just off the coast of South Carolina, China’s alleged globe-trotting, balloon-borne surveillance spree has become a subject of intense international concern. A senior U.S. defense official told journalists that such Chinese balloons have been spotted over five continents — including Asia and Europe. The Pentagon also pointed to an object currently drifting over Latin America and the Caribbean. It was last spotted over Colombia.

Balloon-related episodes in East Asia are particularly noteworthy because they shed light on potential military surveillance efforts targeting countries on the front lines of Chinese aggression — all incidents since 2020, overlapping with growing worries about Beijing’s designs on Taiwan and the region. General Mike Minihan, of the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command, in an internal memo leaked to the press earlier this month, wrote that his “gut” tells him the U.S. and China will be at war by 2025. And CIA director William Burns said during an event at Georgetown last Thursday that the U.S. knows “as a matter of intelligence” that Xi Jinping ordered China’s military to be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027.

So it’s no surprise that Taiwan was watching the balloon response closely. On Saturday, the director-general of Taiwan’s Central Weather Bureau, Cheng Ming-dean, took to Facebook to put the U.S. situation in context. “This balloon has been around for a long time!” he wrote, posting an image of what looks to be a white balloon, saying that staff members with his agency took the photo two years ago.

He told Taiwan’s official CNA newswire agency that the two sightings were in September 2021 and March 2022, when a balloon was spotted that looked similar to the one that flew over the U.S. Cheng didn’t respond to National Review’s request to schedule an interview.

The 2022 balloon appearance was over Songshan Airport in Taipei, through which flights to the mainland run and which also houses a Taiwanese air-force base, he told CNA. Cheng said each of the Taiwan balloon appearances lasted two to three hours.

Cheng added that the device was not a weather balloon and that it resembled similar objects that had previously appeared above Miyagi prefecture, Japan, in the country’s northeast.

According to CNA, Taiwanese legislator Johnny Chiang is now calling on Taiwan’s national-security bureau and defense ministry to investigate China’s use of surveillance balloons.

Similarly, media in Japan reported on a balloon sighting, in 2020, that garnered a fair amount of attention at the time.

It was spotted on June 17, 2020, reportedly drifting at around 10,000 feet — which is notably lower than the altitude at which the U.S. balloon traveled this week. That balloon drifted along at 60,000–65,000 feet throughout its journey across the continental U.S.

The balloon over Japan was observed in multiple cities and towns in Miyagi. Helicopters were unable to reach the object, and official queries into the appearance with government agencies in the city of Sendai went nowhere, the Mainichi reported that year. Miyagi governor Yoshihiro Murai called it “extremely creepy” during a press conference several days after the balloon’s 2020 appearance.

During a press conference on Monday, a senior Japanese official announced that Tokyo is investigating links between the Chinese spy balloon over the U.S. and objects previously sighted over Japan.

Deputy chief cabinet secretary Yoshihiko Isozaki told reporters that objects flown over Japan’s territories would represent a violation of its airspace and merit a response by Japanese self-defense forces and said that another balloon had been spotted over Aomori prefecture, in the country’s north, in 2021, according to Kyodo News.

A Chinese foreign-ministry spokeswoman said she didn’t know anything about the Japanese balloon sightings, the outlet also reported.

There have also been other sightings of groups of balloons, provoking interest as they passed over Taiwan, such as one in 2022 that was linked to the People’s Liberation Army rocket unit by Taiwan’s UDN newspaper. The Taiwanese ministry of national defense downplayed the incident at the time, claiming that it believed the balloon grouping was merely taking weather measurements.

Jimmy Quinn is the national security correspondent for National Review and a Novak Fellow at The Fund for American Studies.
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