Taiwan to ‘handle’ spate of Chinese balloons based on threat level

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Taiwan will “handle” Chinese balloons flying nearby based on threat assessments, though officials believe the current wave is for weather purposes, driven by the prevailing winds at this time of year, the defense ministry in Taipei said on Wednesday.

The potential for China to use balloons for spying became a global issue in February when the United States shot down what it said was a Chinese surveillance balloon. China said the balloon was a civilian craft that accidentally drifted astray.

Taiwan is on high alert for Chinese activities, both military and political, ahead of January 13 presidential and parliamentary elections. Taipei has warned that Beijing may try to interfere to get voters to pick candidates China may prefer.

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Taiwan’s defense ministry has so far this month reported four instances of Chinese balloons flying over the sensitive Taiwan Strait, then crossing airspace to the island's north before vanishing.

Speaking to reporters, defense ministry spokesman Sun Li-fang said that from October to March Chinese balloons are more regularly spotted due to the winds at that time of year.

“Generally speaking most of the ones we have spotted so far are weather balloons,” he said. “They are from mainland China, and not necessarily from the People’s Liberation Army.”

The ministry will “handle” Chinese balloons depending on the threat assessment level, but what exactly that entails is secret, Sun added.

The ministry will announce it if the balloons are for surveillance purposes, but it is so far not possible to judge whether the balloons seen at the moment are connected to the election, he said.

The ministry has said the balloons it has spotted this month disappeared after flying north of Taiwan. Sun said the balloons may disintegrate at a certain altitude or simply vanish from the area the military keeps watch over.

China’s defense ministry has not responded to several requests for comment on the balloons.

Lo Yong-chang from the Taiwan defense ministry’s joint operations department added that between January 12 and January 14, during the election period, the military would go on higher alert as it has done during previous votes.

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