Chinese authorities said on Friday that a suspected Beijing-operated spy balloon hovering over sensitive US airspace was actually a civilian airship destined for scientific research.
China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that west winds caused the airship to run into US territory, describing the incident as a result of “force majeure” — or greater majeure — for which it was not responsible.
“The airship originated in China and is civilian in nature and used for scientific research such as meteorology,” according to a Google translation of a statement on the State Department’s website.
“Affected by the westerly wind and with reduced ability for self-control, the airship deviated significantly from the planned route,” it said.
“China regrets that the airship entered the United States due to force majeure. China will continue to maintain communications with the US to adequately deal with the unexpected situation,” it added.
The statement comes hours after Beijing urged Washington to “keep a cool head” amid its investigation into reports the balloon was hovering over sensitive US airspace.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning said at a news conference on Friday that authorities are still learning about the matter, adding that politicians and the public should withhold judgment “until we have a clear understanding of the facts.” .
We hope that the relevant parties would treat the matter with cool heads.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman
“We have taken note of relevant reports and are learning about this matter. What I want to emphasize is that speculation and conjecture is not conducive to a proper settlement of the matter until the matter is settled,” Mao said via an NBC translation.
The US on Thursday accused China of allegedly operating a possible surveillance balloon over sensitive sites where nuclear weapons are located in the north of the US, further escalating tensions between the two superpowers.
“China is a responsible country and we act in accordance with international law. We have no intention of violating other countries’ sovereignty and airspace,” Mao said, according to a translation of Sky News.
“As I said, we collect and check the facts. We hope that the relevant parties will take a level-headed approach to the matter,” she added.
Spotted over Montana
Footage of what appears to be a high-altitude balloon was taken by an eyewitness over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday. CNBC or NBC News could not independently verify the footage or identify the flying object.
It reportedly flew over the Aleutian Islands, through Canada, and into Montana. A senior defense official said the balloon is still over the US but declined to say where it is now.
Following the sighting, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called a meeting of senior military and defense leaders and other combatants to review the stratospheric balloon’s threat profile and brief President Joe Biden on possible responses.
One of those options was to launch the balloon. That lawsuit was eventually dismissed because of the potential safety hazard to people on the ground from the possible debris field.
A senior defense official said authorities would continue to monitor the balloon closely and are taking “all necessary steps” to protect themselves from the collection of sensitive information by foreign intelligence agencies.
“Currently, we believe that this balloon has limited added value from an intelligence gathering perspective, beyond what the PRC can do through other means,” the official said. “Nevertheless, we are taking all necessary steps to protect ourselves from the collection of sensitive information by foreign intelligence services.”
The balloon poses no threat to civil aviation due to its height, the official added.
Blinken’s visit to Beijing
The latest escalation in tensions between the US and China comes ahead of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s planned visit to Beijing this week. When asked if the incident would affect Blinken’s trip to China, Mao said she had “no relevant information so far.”
Blinken was scheduled to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping on Sunday during a two-day visit to China — the first such visit by a US secretary of state in almost six years and the first by a cabinet secretary in the Biden administration.
The meeting was scheduled by Biden and Xi at November’s G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, to mend ties that have grown strained amid disputes over Russia’s war in Ukraine, trade, Taiwan, human rights and China’s claims are the South China Sea.