By Matthew Lee
A huge, high-altitude Chinese balloon sailed across the U.S. on Friday, drawing severe Pentagon accusations of spying and sending excited or alarmed Americans outside with binoculars. Secretary of State Antony Blinken abruptly canceled a high-stakes Beijing trip aimed at easing U..S.-China tensions.
The cancelation came despite China’s claim that the balloon was a weather research “airship” that had blown off course. The Pentagon rejected that out of hand — and China's contention that the balloon, about the size of two school buses, was not being used for surveillance and had only limited navigational ability.
The balloon was detected earlier over sensitive military sites in Montana but had moved eastward over the heartland of the central United States by midday and was expected to remain in U.S. airspace for several days, officials said.
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 that Blinken was willing to travel to China at “an appropriate time.”
President Joe Biden declined to comment on the matter when questioned at an economic event. Two 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.
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.
A senior defense official said the U.S. prepared fighter jets, including F-22s, to shoot it 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 would create a debris field large enough to put people at risk.
Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, refused to say on Friday whether there was any new consideration of shooting the balloon down.
Ryder said it was at an altitude of about 60,000 feet, was maneuverable and had changed course. He said it currently was posing no threat.
A number of GOP lawmakers have criticized the administration for not taking firmer action against China. 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.
Blinken had been prepared as late as Thursday to travel to Beijing this weekend, but the administration began to reconsider the trip following the detection of the balloon on Wednesday, even before its presence was made public, one official said.
The official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said the administration had “noted” China's expression of regret but concluded that the seriousness of the violation of U.S. airspace, sovereignty and international law was such that Blinken’s trip could not go forward as planned.
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.
Still officials called the presence of the balloon “unacceptable” and one said that message had been delivered by Blinken to Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi on Friday.
However, the official also said that Blinken had told the Chinese he would be prepared to travel to China “at the earliest opportunity when conditions allow.”
Blinken’s long-anticipated meetings with senior Chinese officials had been seen in both countries as a possible way to find some areas of common ground at a time of 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 Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a summit in Indonesia, had not been formally announced, officials in both Beijing and Washington had spoken in recent days about Blinken’s imminent arrival for meetings on Sunday and Monday.
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.
In a statement that approached an apology, the Chinese foreign ministry said the balloon was a civilian airship used mainly for meteorological research. It said said the airship had limited “self-steering” capabilities and had “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.
Ellen Knickmeyer, Tara Copp, Lolita C. Baldor, Aamer Madhani and Zeke Miller in Washington; Matthew Brown in Billings, Montana; and Emily Wang Fujiyama and Associated Press news assistant Caroline Chen in Beijing contributed to this report.