Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed a planned visit to China following the detection of a suspected spy balloon over the United States which Beijing has claimed is a civilian airship which blew off course.
Blinken was expected to travel on Sunday for a visit which included a landmark meeting with President Xi Jinping.
The trip was postponed on Friday morning after the balloon was detected earlier this week and monitored flying worryingly close to sensitive nuclear sites in Montana.
The detection of the balloon triggered alarm in the White House and the Pentagon – and sparked calls for the US military to shoot it down.
Beijing had urged calm while it established the ‘facts’ before a statement on Friday morning said the balloon was a weather research device that had ‘deviated far from its planned course’.
A US defense official said the balloon is the size of several buses – but doesn’t post an immediate threat to Americans. The balloon, pictured over Montana, has been tracked for several days but officials decided not to shoot it down over fears about debris. China claims it is a civilian airship used for meteorological research
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has cancelled a trip to China which included a meeting with President Xi Jinping after the balloon was detected earlier this week
The Chinese foreign ministry said it regretted that the balloon had mistakenly entered US airspace.
The balloon’s discovery sparked a diplomatic crisis on the eve of the planned visit by Blinken.
The balloon – which is as large as three buses – was detected earlier this week and recently entered airspace in Montana, triggering fears it could be monitoring nuclear sites there.
Canada was also monitoring a ‘potential second incident’ on Friday as officials worked to determine whether a separate sighting was the same balloon.
China further blamed the balloon’s entry into US airspace on its limited steering capability.
A statement added: ‘The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure,’ citing a legal term used to refer to events beyond one’s control.
The US is yet to respond to China’s claim about the balloon’s provenance but the cancellation of the meeting indicates the White House’s anger over the debacle.
The fiasco is yet another escalation of the tensions between the United States and China. CIA director William Burns said on Thursday that President Xi had ordered the Chinese military to be prepared for an invasion of Taiwan by 2027.
Montana Senator Steve Daines feared the Chinese balloon floating above the state was targeting nuclear missile fields installed there.
US officials said they have taken ‘custody’ of the balloon. They are thought to believe it has ‘limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective’.
Republican senators had called on Blinken to cancel the trip, which was agreed by Biden and President Xi.
In a statement on Thursday, the Canadian government said: ‘A high-altitude surveillance balloon was detected and its movements are being actively tracked by North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).
‘Canadians are safe and Canada is taking steps to ensure the security of its airspace, including the monitoring of a potential second incident.’
A model of the path the balloon is thought to have taken, created by meteorologist Dan Satterfield, showed it originated in central China
The balloon flew over the Aleutian Islands in the northern Pacific Ocean, and then crossed Canadian airspace into the United States. Canada is monitoring a ‘potential second incident’
Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who served under Trump, accused China of a ‘brazen act’.
He told CNN the US should ‘[bring] it down so that we can capture the equipment and understand exactly what they are doing. Are they taking pictures? Are they intercepting signals?’
‘Failing that I would definitely shoot it down, provided that there’s no risk to people on the ground.’
Esper said it was a matter of ‘great concern’ that the balloon was flying close to missile fields and strategic bomber bases.
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, said the balloon was alarming but not surprising.
‘The level of espionage aimed at our country by Beijing has grown dramatically more intense & brazen over the last 5 years,’ Rubio said on Twitter.
Arkansas’ Republican Senator, Tom Cotton, said: ‘President Biden should stop coddling and appeasing the Chinese communists. Bring the balloon down now and exploit its tech package, which could be an intelligence bonanza.
‘And President Biden and Secretary Austin need to answer if this balloon was detected over Alaskan airspace. If so, why didn’t we bring it down there? If not, why not?
‘As usual, the Chinese Communists’ provocations have been met with weakness and hand-wringing.’
The discovery has put the militaries and intelligence services of the United States and Canada on alert.
F-22 fight jets were mobilized to track the device as it oved over Montana, which borders Canada, on Wednesday.
A US defense official said it entered US airspace ‘a couple days ago’ but its exact location has not been shared.
China is thought to be flying a surveillance balloon over the United States, and Joe Biden (left) wanted to shoot it down. Pictured right is President Xi Jinping
CIA Director William Burns pictured on Thursday at Washington’s Georgetown University, where he called China the ‘biggest geopolitical challenge’ facing the United States
The balloon flew over the vast state of Montana, which borders Canada, and at an altitude well above commercial air traffic.
Before that, it’s path was tracked over the Aleutian Islands in the northern Pacific Ocean, then over Canadian airspace into the United States.
A US official said the balloon was as large as three buses.
‘There have been reports of pilots seeing this thing, even though it’s pretty high up in the sky,’ the official added.
‘So, you know, it’s sizeable.’
The balloon is large enough that destroying it would rain down debris, risking the safety of people on the ground, US officials said, adding: ‘Does it pose a threat to civilian aviation? Our assessment is it does not. Does it pose a significantly enhanced threat on the intelligence side? Our best assessment right now is that it does not.’
The news initially broke as CIA Director William Burns was speaking at an event at Washington’s Georgetown University, where he called China the ‘biggest geopolitical challenge’ facing the United States.
Elaborating on China’s readiness for an invasion of Taiwan, Burns added: ‘Now, that does not mean that he’s decided to conduct an invasion in 2027, or any other year, but it’s a reminder of the seriousness of his focus and his ambition.
‘Our assessment at CIA is that I wouldn’t underestimate President Xi’s ambitions with regard to Taiwan,’ he said, adding that the Chinese leader was likely ‘surprised and unsettled’ and trying to draw lessons by the ‘very poor performance’ of the Russian military and its weapons systems in Ukraine.
Russia and China signed a ‘no limits’ partnership last February shortly before Russian forces invaded Ukraine, and their economic links have boomed as Russia’s connections with the West have shriveled.
The Russian invasion had fueled concerns in the West of China possibly making a similar move on Taiwan, a democratic island Beijing says is its territory.
China has refrained from condemning Russia’s operation against Ukraine, but it has been careful not to provide the sort of direct material support which could provoke Western sanctions like those imposed on Moscow.
‘I think it’s a mistake to underestimate the mutual commitment to that partnership, but it’s not a friendship totally without limits,’ Burns said.