The FBI reportedly believes that the craft may have been involved in a surveillance operation by a foreign power A suspected Chinese spy balloon seen in the sky over Billings, Montana, February 1, 2023 © AFP / Chase Doak

A group of fishermen have discovered the wreckage of a possible “spy balloon” off the coast of Alaska and it has become the subject of an FBI investigation, CNN reported on Friday. The shooting down last year of an alleged Chinese spy balloon by the US triggered a major diplomatic incident between Washington and Beijing.

The fishermen brought the suspicious debris onto their boat and will hand it over to FBI agents when they return to port this weekend, the network reported, citing anonymous “sources familiar with the matter.”

Based on photographs shared with them by the crew, FBI agents determined that it was “similar enough in appearance to a foreign-government owned surveillance balloon that it warranted further investigation,” CNN stated.

In a statement released on Friday night, the FBI said that it was “aware of debris found off the coast of Alaska by a commercial fishing vessel. We will work with our partners to assist with the logistics of the debris recovery.”

White House planned to censor Chinese ‘spy balloon’ story – NBC White House planned to censor Chinese ‘spy balloon’ story – NBC

Last February, a US fighter jet shot down what the White House described as a suspected Chinese “spy balloon” off the coast of South Carolina. Before it met its end over the Atlantic Ocean, the balloon traveled south from Alaska before swinging east to traverse the contiguous US.

While American officials initially claimed that the balloon passed over military installations and transmitted data back to China, the Pentagon later said that the device didn’t collect any intelligence. However, Washington still believes that it was part of a fleet of similar craft deployed by Beijing to conduct high-altitude surveillance in recent years.

China described the balloon as a “civilian airship” that strayed into US airspace due to force-majeure circumstances, and condemned the decision to shoot it down.

US President Joe Biden was heavily criticized by Republicans for allowing the balloon to transit the US before downing it over open water. The incident also further soured relations between Washington and Beijing, which were already severely strained over a visit by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan the previous August.

The US imposed sanctions on Chinese aerospace firms in the wake of the incident. China reciprocated by passing a law to allow sanctions of its own on American companies, with Beijing also stating that high-level military contacts between the two powers – suspended after Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan – would not resume until the US unilaterally lifted its economic penalties.

These military communication channels were eventually restored in November after Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping held talks in California. However, the sanctions remain in place, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urging US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to remove them, at a meeting in Munich last month.