BEIJING (AP) — China said Friday that a balloon spotted over American airspace was used for weather research and was blown off course, despite U.S. suspicion it was spying. The discovery further strained already tense relations between Beijing and Washington.
The Pentagon decided not to shoot down the balloon, which was potentially flying over sensitive sites, because of concerns of hurting people on the ground.
The U.S. had no immediate response to the Chinese explanation, but it came as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was expected to make his first trip to Beijing this weekend. The visit has not been formally announced, and it was unclear if the balloon's discovery would affect his travel plans.
Blinken would be the highest-ranking member of 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.
In a statement late Friday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the balloon was a civilian airship used mainly for meteorological research. The ministry said the airship has limited “self-steering" capabilities and “deviated far from its planned course” because of winds.
“The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure,” the statement said, citing a legal term used to refer to events beyond one's control.
On Thursday, a senior American defense official told Pentagon reporters that the U.S. has “very high confidence” that the object spotted over U.S. airspace in recent days 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 defense 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.
It was unclear what will happen with the balloon if it isn’t brought down.
Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said 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.
He said the balloon was traveling well above the height at which commercial aircraft fly and didn't present a threat to people on the ground.