US calls Montana balloon ‘a clear violation of sovereignty’ and dismisses China’s claims it is not a spy ship
The US secretary of state Antony Blinken cancelled his first official visit to Beijing on Friday following the discovery of a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon over United States airspace, as Pentagon officials tracked the aircraft eastwards across the country.
In a flurry of briefings throughout the day, American diplomatic and military officials condemned the Chinese government while giving few details about the nature or location of the vessel. Officials stressed that the balloon posed no danger to civilians on the ground.
The incident comes at a time of already-heightened tensions between the two countries, which Mr Blinken’s trip was supposed to address. Among the many points of contention are various trade disputes, the fate of Taiwan, and Chinese economic influence in the United States. The schedule for the visit included a meeting with China’s president, Xi Jinping.
Explaining his decision to cancel the visit, Mr Blinken described the balloon as “a clear violation of US sovereignty and international law”, and an “irresponsible act”.
The balloon was first sighted in US airspace on Wednesday over Billings, Montana, prompting the Pentagon to announce that it was monitoring what it described as a “high-altitude surveillance balloon”.
During a hastily called briefing on Thursday evening, a senior defence official said the balloon’s path carried it “over a number of sensitive sites”. The town of Billings is a little over 320km (200 miles) from a nuclear missile silo field at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
The presence of an alleged Chinese surveillance craft over US airspace prompted the US military to scramble F-22 fighter jets in case a decision was taken to shoot it down, the official added. Officials decided against that course of action due to the risk of debris injuring civilians on the ground.
On Friday, Pentagon press secretary Air Force Brig Gen Pat Ryder said the balloon had “changed course” since its discovery, and would remain over United States airspace for the next few days.
“While we won’t get into specifics in regards to the exact location, I can tell you that the balloon continues to move eastward and is currently over the centre of the continental United States,” he said, adding that it was at an approximate altitude of 60,000ft.
There were further unconfirmed sightings reported on Friday above Kansas.
“We currently assess that the balloon does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground at this time, and will continue to monitor and review options,” Brig Gen Ryder added.
In its first official acknowledgement of the incident earlier in the day, China’s foreign ministry said the balloon was a “civilian airship” used for “research, mainly meteorological purposes”, and that it had be“deviated far from its planned course” due to wind.
“The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure,” the foreign ministry said in a statement, using a legal term used to describe events beyond one’s control.
A senior State Department official accused China of an “unacceptable violation of US sovereignty” during a call with reporters earlier in the day, and dismissed Beijing’s claim that the object was a civilian airship.
“We do acknowledge China’s statement of regret regarding this incident. We remain confident in our assessment of the situation,” the senior official said.
“Candidly speaking, in this current environment, I think, it would have significantly narrowed the agenda that we would have been able to address,” the official said, explaining the decision to cancel Mr Blinken’s visit.
“There is a Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon currently over the United States. It’s a clear and unacceptable violation of US sovereignty and we have made that crystal clear and will continue to do so in our regular communications with our Chinese counterparts,” the official added.
Speaking aboard Air Force One later, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said President Joe Biden was briefed on the balloon three days ago, but after consulting with Pentagon officials decided it should not be shot down.
“It was the strong recommendation by secretary Austin, chairman Milley, [and] the commander of Northern Command not to take kinetic action because of the risks to safety and security of the people on the ground,” Ms Jean-Pierre said. “President Biden took that recommendation from the military seriously.”
The White House spokesperson added that Mr Biden agreed with Mr Blinken’s decision not to go through with his previously-planned travel to Beijing at this time.
“It was a consensus that it was not appropriate to travel to the People’s Republic of China at this time. We know that the PRC issued a 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,” she said.
While State Department officials insisted that lines of communication with Beijing remained open, they faced questions from reporters about why this incident had prompted such a strong response, when the Pentagon had conceded that this was not the first time a Chinese surveillance balloon had been spotted over US airspace.
“We can point out one element that's different this time; this is the first time it's happened on the eve of a secretary of state visit to the PRC,” a senior State Department official told reporters.
In a separate briefing, however, a defence official said what set this incident apart was the length of time that it stayed in US airspace.
“I think the thing that is different is the altitude and, of course, the willingness to put it over the continental United States for an extended period of time,” the defence official said.