U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday postponed a trip to China just hours before he was set to depart after a high-altitude Chinese surveillance balloon was discovered flying over U.S. airspace.
U.S. officials told reporters on background that Blinken did not want the incident to dominate discussions. The scheduled visit was the first for Blinken as secretary of state.
The news came shortly after a China foreign ministry spokesperson confirmed the balloon did, in fact, belong to China. The spokesperson said it was civilian airship used mainly for meteorological research and “had deviated from its planned course.”
The spokesperson said China regrets the unintended entry into U.S. airspace and will continue communicating with the United States on the matter.
U.S. defense officials discovered the balloon Wednesday over the northwestern state of Montana, which houses one of the three U.S. Air Force bases that operate and maintain intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Air traffic out of the Billings, Montana, airport briefly came to a halt Wednesday as the U.S. mobilized fighter jets to track the balloon.
Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said the balloon is traveling “well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.” Another defense official said they chose not to shoot it down for fear it could land in a populated area.
A senior U.S. official told reporters they believed the balloon was designed for “surveillance and clearly they’re trying to fly this balloon over sensitive sites … to collect information.”
In an interview with VOA’s China Branch, the Rand Corporation’s Timothy Heath said the use of such balloons is considered a relatively outdated mode of collecting intelligence as most nations use satellites to collect such data.
But Heath said new technologies allow them to be more easily controlled and are often harder to detect by radar. He said the balloon, which is roughly the size of three school buses, can also hover over an area for longer periods of time.
In a separate interview, the Hudson Institute’s Patrick Cronin told VOA’s China Branch the balloon is “clumsy act of intelligence gathering by the Chinese,” and said the United States should prepare an “appropriately sharp response” to the action.
Experts say both the U.S. and the Soviet Union used similar surveillance balloons during the Cold War.
Spy balloons usually operate at 80,000 to120,000 feet, far above the operating levels of commercial airline traffic and fighter jets.
Some information for this report was provided by the Associated Press and Reuters.
Source: Voa News