The Chinese balloon drifting high above the U.S. and first revealed over Montana has created a buzz down below among residents who initially wondered what it was — and now wonder what its arrival means amid a chorus of alarm raised by the region’s elected officials.
The discovery prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postponed a planned high-stakes weekend diplomatic trip to China as the Biden administration weighs a broader response to the discovery of the balloon, according to a U.S. official.
Blinken said Friday that he told Chinese officials that "the presence of this surveillance balloon in U.S. airspace is a clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law, that it's an irresponsible act, and that the [People's Republic of China's] decision to take this action on the eve of my planned visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have."
What You Need To Know
- China’s Foreign Ministry said Friday that a balloon the U.S. suspects of conducting surveillance was a civilian “airship” used for research, mainly meteorological purposes
- In a statement, the agency said that the airship has limited steering capability and “deviated far from its planned course” because of winds; China’s Foreign Ministry said China regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace
- The Pentagon decided not to shoot down the balloon because of concerns of hurting people on the ground
- Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters Friday the United States is “aware of the PRC statement,” adding: “However, the fact is, we know that it's a surveillance balloon"
China’s Foreign Ministry said Friday that the balloon was a civilian “airship” used for research, mainly meteorological purposes.
In a statement, the agency said that the airship has limited steering capability and “deviated far from its planned course” because of winds China’s Foreign Ministry said China regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace.
"The airship is from China," a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "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," the statement reads. "The Chinese side will continue communicating with the U.S. side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure."
Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters Friday the United States is “aware of the PRC statement,” adding: “However, the fact is, we know that it's a surveillance balloon and I'm not going to be able to be more specific than that.”
"We do know the balloon has violated U.S. airspace and international law, which is unacceptable," Ryder added, noting they have conveyed this to China's government.
“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 center of the continental United States,” Ryder added. “Again, we currently assess that the balloon does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground at this time.”
Ryder said the United States would “continue to monitor, in terms of way ahead, we will continue to review options,” and that current assessments estimate the balloon – which is flying around 60,000 feet in the air, well above typical civilian airspace – will remain over the U.S. for “a few days.”
While Ryder would not clarify where exactly the balloon is as of Friday, he said the Pentagon would “do our best to keep you and the public informed in general terms on where the balloon is.”
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
“In terms of the discussions about whether or not to shoot down this balloon, that was an option,” Ryder said Friday, adding: “We do recognize that any potential debris field would be significant and potentially cause civilian injuries or deaths, or significant property damage.”
It was not clear what will happen with the balloon if it isn't brought down.
Discovery of the balloon was announced by Pentagon officials who said one of the places it was spotted was over the state of Montana, which is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
"Once the balloon was detected, we acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information," Ryder said Friday.
The decision for Blinken to postpone the trip came just hours before he had been due to depart Washington for Beijing and marked a new blow to already strained U.S.-Chinese relations. The official said Blinken and President Joe Biden determined it was best not to proceed with the trip at this time.
“In light of China’s unacceptable action, I am postponing my planned travel to China this weekend,” Blinken said Friday.
Blinken’s long-anticipated meetings with senior Chinese officials had been seen in both countries as a way to find some areas of common ground amid major disagreements over Taiwan, human rights, China’s claims in the South China Sea, North Korea, Russia’s war in Ukraine, trade policy and climate change.
Although the trip, which was agreed to in November by President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a summit in Indonesia, had not been formally announced, officials in both Beijing and Washington had been talking in recent days about Blinken’s imminent arrival.
The meetings were to begin on Sunday and go through Monday.
The development marked a new blow to already strained U.S.-Chinese relations that have been in a downward spiral for years over numerous issues. Still, U.S. officials maintained that diplomatic channels remain open and Blinken said he remained willing to travel to China “when conditions allow.”
“We continue to believe that having open lines of communication is important,” he said.
President Joe Biden declined to comment on the matter when questioned at an economic event. Two likely 2024 reelection challengers, former President Donald Trump, and Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador, said the U.S. should immediately shoot down the balloon.
Biden was first briefed about the Chinese surveillance balloon on Tuesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters. She did not shed light on why the administration waited until Thursday to make its concerns public.
A senior defense official said the U.S. had prepared fighter jets, including F-22s, to shoot the balloon down if ordered. The Pentagon ultimately recommended against that, noting that even as the balloon was over a sparsely populated area of Montana, its size could create a debris field large enough to put people at risk.
As for Blinken’s trip, Jean-Pierre said a diplomatic visit to China was not appropriate at this time. She said that “the presence of this balloon in our airspace ... is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law and it is unacceptable this occurred.”
A State Department official said Blinken and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman had both protested to the top official at the Chinese Embassy on Wednesday, a day before the Pentagon announced the discovery of the balloon.
Pentagon officials said Thursday that one of the places it was spotted was over Montana, which is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
A number of GOP lawmakers have criticized the administration for not taking firmer action against China before this. And a decision for Blinken to proceed with his trip could have made Biden even more susceptible to their complaints at a time he’s starting to deal with the new Republican-led U.S. House.
Weather experts said China’s claim that the balloon had gone off course was not unfeasible. China’s account of wind patterns known as the Westerlies carrying a balloon to the western United States was “absolutely possible - not possible, likely,” said Dan Jaffe, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at the University of Washington.
China, which angrily denounces surveillance attempts by the U.S. and others over areas it considers to be its territory and once forced down an American spy plane and held its crew captive on Hainan Island, was relatively conciliatory in its response to the U.S. complaints.