A balloon the U.S. suspected was conducting surveillance over the northwestern United States is a civilian “airship” used for weather research and was blown off course, China’s Foreign Ministry said on Friday.
A statement from the ministry said the balloon, spotted over the U.S. in recent days, has limited “self-steering” capability and “deviated far from its planned course” because of winds.
It said China regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace. Earlier, the ministry said China has “no intention of violating the territory and airspace of any sovereign country.”
“China is a responsible country and has always strictly abided by international laws, and China has no intention of violating the territory and airspace of any sovereign country,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning.
Blinken postpones China visit
News that a Chinese spy balloon may be flying in U.S. airspace came as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was expected to make his first trip to Beijing this weekend. However, a senior State Department official on Friday said Blinken will postpone the visit.
The official said the U.S. concluded conditions are not right at this moment for Blinken to travel to Beijing and that another trip would be arranged “at the earliest opportunity.”
Blinken did not want the balloon controversy to dominate his meetings with Chinese officials, U.S. media outlets reported.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning earlier on Friday said she had no information on the trip. Mao also urged the two countries to handle the situation involving the balloon “calmly and carefully.”
Blinken was to have been the highest-ranking member of U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration to visit China, on a mission to mitigate a sharp downturn in relations between the countries amid trade disputes and concerns about Beijing’s increasingly aggressive stance toward Taiwan and in the South China Sea.
WATCH | Reaction to high-altitude Chinese balloon over U.S.:
On Thursday, a senior American defence official told Pentagon reporters that the U.S. has “very high confidence” that the object spotted over U.S. airspace was a Chinese high-altitude balloon and that it was flying over sensitive sites to collect information.
One of the places the balloon was spotted was Montana, which is home to one of the nation’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.
The defence official said the U.S. has assessed that the balloon has “limited” value in terms of providing intelligence that couldn’t be obtained by other technologies, such as spy satellites.
Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said on Thursday that similar balloon activity has been seen in the past several years and the government has taken steps to ensure no sensitive information was stolen.
Travelling at high altitude
He said the balloon was travelling well above the height at which commercial aircraft fly and didn’t present a threat to people on the ground.
Biden was briefed and asked the military to present options, according to a senior administration official, who was also not authorized to publicly discuss sensitive information.
The senior defence official said the U.S. prepared fighter jets, including F-22s, to shoot down the balloon if ordered. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advised against taking “kinetic action” because of risks to the safety of people on the ground.
Biden accepted that recommendation. Even though the balloon was over a sparsely populated area of Montana, its size would create a debris field large enough that it could have put people at risk.
The defence official would not specify the size of the balloon but said commercial pilots could spot it from their cockpits.
Canada summons ambassador
Chinese Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu was summoned by Global Affairs Canada officials on Thursday amid the controversy, according to department spokesperson Charlotte MacLeod.
“We will continue to vigorously express our position to Chinese officials through multiple channels,” MacLeod said in a statement on Friday.
Canada’s Department of National Defence said the balloon’s movements were being actively tracked by the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD), which is responsible for monitoring airborne threats to the continent.
Officials have not said whether the surveillance balloon flew over Canadian airspace, and Defence Minister Anita Anand’s office declined comment.
However, the Defence Department said in its statement that Canadian intelligence agencies were working with American counterparts.
The balloon over the continental U.S. was first reported by NBC News. A photograph of a large white balloon lingering over the area was captured by The Billings Gazette. It could be seen drifting in and out of clouds and had what appeared to be a solar array hanging from the bottom, Gazette photographer Larry Mayer said.
The balloon’s appearance has added to national security concerns among American lawmakers over China’s influence in the U.S., ranging from the prevalence of the hugely popular smartphone app TikTok to purchases of American farmland.
“China’s brazen disregard for U.S. sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed,” Republican Party House Speaker Kevin McCarthy tweeted.