China says a suspected spy balloon that has been flying over the United States is actually a “civilian airship” that strayed into U.S. airspace.
The United States said it believed the object was a high-altitude surveillance balloon flying over sensitive sites to gather information.
The foreign ministry in Beijing acknowledged that the balloons came from China, but said they were for meteorological and other scientific research.
It added that it regretted that it had gone off track.
However, a U.S. official said earlier: “It is clear that the purpose of the balloon is surveillance.”
Airship spotted over Billings, Montana, Wednesday – near one of three US nuclear missile silos at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
Pentagon says Chinese spy balloon flew over U.S. airspace
What is a spy balloon?
It flew over the Aleutian Islands, not far from the coast Alaskaand pass Canada before entering the United States.
The balloon is still in U.S. airspace, but officials declined to say where it is now.
They acknowledged that it operates above civilian air traffic and below “outer space”, but declined to say how high it flew.
Military and defense leaders considered shooting balloons out of the sky but decided against it due to the safety risk of falling debris.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin convened a meeting of senior military and defense leaders to review the threat profile and possible responses to the balloon presented to the U.S. president joe biden Wednesday.
the United States is already involved Chinese Officers “urgent” and communicated the seriousness of the situation.
Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said: “The United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon flying over the continental United States.
“The U.S. government, including NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), continues to closely track and monitor it.
“Balloons are currently flying at altitudes well above commercial air traffic and pose no military or physical threat to personnel on the ground.
China’s Arctic hits another record low
China’s population drops for first time in years
Mike Pompeo: China ‘want to dominate the world’
“In the past few years, instances of this ballooning activity have been observed.
“Once the balloon was discovered, the U.S. government took immediate action to prevent the collection of sensitive information.”
China and the United States have recently experienced tension, clashing over Taiwan and China’s human rights records and their military activities in the South China Sea.
U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is expected to visit China in the coming days.
It was not immediately clear whether this would affect his travel plans, and the State Department has yet to make an official announcement.
Spy balloons threaten efforts to ease U.S.-China relations
The mistrust between Chinese and Americans is as bad as it has been for decades.
An incident like this fuels that distrust whenever it happens, but coming just days before Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s landmark visit to Beijing could seriously undermine tentative efforts by both sides to halt talks . Relations deteriorated further.
Mr Blinken is expected to arrive in Beijing on Sunday and is scheduled to meet his opponent, Qin Gang, as well as China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi.
It would take a lot of hard diplomatic work to make such a visit possible – the fact that it happened is some kind of progress.
In recent days, it has even been suggested that Mr Blinken might meet with President Xi Jinping himself.
If so, he would become the first U.S. secretary of state to receive that level of access in five years, a major sign that both sides are serious about trying to ease their badly damaged relationship.
Both Chinese leaders and U.S. President Joe Biden recognized when they met at the G20 summit late last year that they needed to do more to ensure their mistrust and rivalry did not turn into conflict and confrontation.
This visit is clearly part of that effort. But mutual acknowledgment that escalating tensions is not a good thing is not the same thing as actively rebuilding trust.
This incident is likely to be seen by the Americans as an open confrontation with both sides. Beijing may realize just how much of a threat the incident poses to these fledgling efforts.
Indeed, at a regular news conference in Beijing on Friday, it was clear that China wanted to rein in speculation.
Mao Ning, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, said China was “verifying” the situation, adding: “What I want to emphasize is that before the facts are clarified, speculation and hype will not help to properly resolve the issue.”
Given the current low ebb in relations between the two countries, Mr Blinken’s visit is not expected to lead to any breakthroughs. It is seen more as an opportunity for both sides to reiterate their positions and red lines and keep the channels of dialogue open.
It may never be known whether the spy balloon was deliberately scheduled to precede the visit or just unfortunate timing, but if it forces Mr Blinken to cancel, the consequences of the long-term project to stem the deterioration of relations could be very serious indeed.