The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, is reported to have postponed a planned visit to China this weekend after the intrusion of a high-altitude Chinese balloon into US airspace.
China had claimed the balloon that flew over Canada and the US was for “mainly meteorological purposes” and had been blown off course, and apologised to the US for its “unintended entry” into American airspace. But the postponement of Blinken’s visit, reported by Bloomberg and ABC News, suggests that the Biden administration views the overflight as a major incident in bilateral relations.
There was no immediate confirmation from the state department. Blinken had been expected to visit China this weekend to meet the president, Xi Jinping, though the trip has not been formally announced.
The balloon caused alarm in the Pentagon which tracked its progress across Canada as far as Montana, home to some of the country’s nuclear missile force. US defence officials described it as a surveillance balloon. Joe Biden was alerted and asked for military options, but it was decided that shooting it down could pose a threat from debris to people on the ground.
Asked about the balloon, the Chinese foreign ministry said on Friday: “The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes. Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course.”
“The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure [an unstoppable and unpredictable event]”, the Chinese statement said. “The Chinese side will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure.”
Chinese state media had earlier used the incident to taunt the US.
“The balloon itself is a big target,” the state-backed nationalistic tabloid the Global Times wrote in English on Twitter, which is banned in China. “If balloons from other countries could really enter continental US smoothly, or even enter the sky over certain states, it only proves that the US’s air defence system is completely a decoration and cannot be trusted.”
While flying high over Montana, the balloon caused a temporary suspension of air traffic in Billings airport. The Pentagon issued a statement to reassure the public, revealing it was not the first such incident.
“The balloon is currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground,” the Pentagon statement said. “Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years. Once the balloon was detected, the US government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”
Canada’s national defence department said it too had detected a high-altitude surveillance balloon and was “monitoring a potential second incident”. US officials said earlier that the balloon had travelled over part of Canada on its way to Montana.
Canada’s defence authorities made clear there was no public danger, adding: “Canada’s intelligence agencies are working with American partners and continue to take all necessary measures to safeguard Canada’s sensitive information from foreign intelligence threats.”
The Canadian government summoned China’s ambassador on Thursday to explain the incident, the foreign ministry in Ottawa said.
The postponement of Blinken’s trip would set back efforts to resolve several points of friction. Beijing this week strenuously objected to a deal between the Philippines and the US in which Manila has granted the US expanded access to its military bases. Under the deal, the US will have additional access to Philippine bases for joint training, storing equipment and supplies, and building facilities, though not to establish a permanent presence.