China’s foreign ministry has expressed regret over what it called a civilian balloon straying into United States airspace, which prompted the postponement of a planned visit by Washington’s top diplomat to Beijing.
In a statement on Friday, the ministry said the balloon suspected by the US of conducting surveillance was a civilian “airship” used for research, mainly for meteorological purposes.
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The statement said the airship has limited steering capability and “deviated far from its planned course” because of winds.
The Pentagon had earlier said it was “tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon”. It decided not to shoot down the balloon, which was potentially flying over sensitive sites, because of concerns of hurting people on the ground.
Reporting from the White House in Washington, DC, Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett said that the balloon was first spotted by bystanders in the state of Montana.
“It was spotted by people on the ground who were wondering what was in the sky. That is how the US government first learned about this, incredibly,” she said. “It was then that the US government started tracking it.”
“There are going to have to be some answers as to why it was bystanders who first spotted this and not the military or the US government,” added Halkett.
Trip to Beijing
The Biden administration announced later on Friday that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was expected to make his first visit to Beijing this weekend, would postpone the trip over what Washington called the “irresponsible” balloon incident.
A senior State Department official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, said “conditions are not right” for the visit, which had been expected to start on Sunday.
Blinken would have been the highest-ranking member of President Joe Biden’s administration to travel to 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 towards Taiwan and in the South China Sea.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Mao Ning had earlier said she had no information on the trip, but added that China had “no intention of violating the territory and airspace of any sovereign country” and urged for calm while the facts were established.
“We have noted the PRC [People’s Republic of China] statement of regret, but the presence of this balloon in our airspace is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law. And it is unacceptable that this has occurred,” the US official told reporters.
A day earlier, a senior US defence official told Pentagon reporters that the US had “very high confidence” that the object spotted over its airspace in recent days was a Chinese high-altitude balloon and that it was flying over sensitive sites to collect information.
The official, who had spoken on condition of anonymity, had confirmed that 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 also said the US had assessed the balloon had “limited” value in terms of providing intelligence that could not be obtained by other technologies, such as spy satellites.
Canada, which has had frosty relations with China in recent years, also summoned the Chinese ambassador on Thursday over the incident, a spokesman for the Canadian foreign ministry told Al Jazeera in an email.
“We will continue to vigorously express our position to Chinese officials through multiple channels,” Global Affairs Canada spokesman Jason Kung said on Friday.
The Canadian defence department said in an earlier statement that a “high-altitude surveillance balloon was detected” and was being tracked by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), a joint US-Canada agency.
Meanwhile, back in the US, Pentagon press secretary Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said similar balloon activity has been seen in the past several years and the government had taken steps to ensure no sensitive information was stolen.
He said the balloon was travelling well above the height commercial aircraft fly at and did not 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 authorised to publicly discuss sensitive information. The senior defence official said the US prepared fighter jets, including F-22s, to shoot down the balloon if ordered.
Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Army General Mark Milley, chairman 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.
China’s brazen disregard for U.S. sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed, and President Biden cannot be silent.
I am requesting a Gang of Eight briefing. https://t.co/KarTCUzbOS
— Kevin McCarthy (@SpeakerMcCarthy) February 3, 2023
Even though the balloon was over a sparsely populated area, 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.
The balloon’s appearance adds to national security concerns among US lawmakers about China’s influence in the country, ranging from the prevalence of the hugely popular smartphone app TikTok to purchases of American farmland.
“China’s brazen disregard for US sovereignty is a destabilising action that must be addressed,” Republican Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy tweeted.