HONG KONG — Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday postponed a trip to Beijing next week after a suspected Chinese spy balloon was spotted over the United States, two U.S. officials told NBC News.
"We have concluded that the conditions are not right at this moment for Secretary Blinken to travel to China," a senior State Department official said.
The U.S. is "committed to maintaining open lines" with China "at all times, including during this incident," the official said, adding that Blinken planned to make the trip "at the earliest opportunity when conditions allow."
Even before it was scuppered, major issues beset the upcoming trip. But the news late Thursday that the U.S. military was monitoring the suspected Chinese spy balloon, which had flown over the Aleutian Islands and through Canada before moving into U.S. airspace, only added to the list of potential flashpoints.
On Friday, Chinese officials said the balloon was indeed theirs.
"The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website.
Suspected Chinese spy balloon on the moveFeb. 4, 202302:27
"The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure," it said. It added that China would keep communicating with the U.S. to "properly handle this unexpected situation."
The ministry said the balloon "deviated far from its planned course" because of strong winds and a lack of steering ability. It has been spotted in Billings, Montana, some 6,000 miles from China.
Later on Friday, the Pentagon’s spokesperson, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, told journalists that the balloon was flying at an altitude of 60,000 feet — above civilian and military aviation — and moving eastwards across the continental U.S.
Asked about Chinese claims that it was a weather balloon, Ryder said it had the ability to maneuver and he was confident was a surveillance balloon.
The balloon revelation comes days before Blinken was due to visit China, the highest-ranking Biden administration official to do so.
Canada on Thursday said it was monitoring a "potential second incident" relating to a balloon. China has yet to respond to this statement.
In a brief statement late Thursday, the Canadian Department of National Defense said a high-altitude surveillance balloon had been detected and was being “actively tracked” by the North American Aerospace Defense Command, a U.S.-Canadian military organization. It did not provide details about the balloon or say whether it was the same balloon detected in the U.S.
“Canadians are safe and Canada is taking steps to ensure the security of its airspace, including the monitoring of a potential second incident,” it said, without elaborating.
The statement, which did not mention China, added that Canadian intelligence agencies were working with U.S. partners to protect against “foreign intelligence threats.”
The Canadian defense department did not immediately respond to phone calls and emails requesting additional information.
A senior U.S. defense official said Thursday the balloon was still over the United States but declined to say where. It has not been shot out of the sky so far, U.S. officials said, because falling debris could pose a safety risk to people on the ground. They said the balloon did not pose a threat to civil aviation and was of limited use in collecting intelligence, though Montana is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
Staff members for the Gang of Eight — Congressional leaders briefed on classified issues — were given a classified briefing on the situation on Thursday afternoon, three sources familiar told NBC News.
The Gang of Eight includes Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate, as well as the chairs and ranking minority members of the House and the Senate intelligence committees.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said he was "still waiting for real answers on how this happened and what steps the Administration took to protect our country, and I will hold everyone accountable until I get them."
“This provocation is completely unacceptable," he said, adding that "I will always defend Montana and our national security from hostile adversaries like China.”
Earlier, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said Beijing was assessing the situation and that speculation and hype were unhelpful while facts were still being clarified.
“China is a responsible country that always abides by international law and has no intention of infringing on any country’s territory and airspace,” she said at a daily briefing.
“We hope that both sides can handle this together calmly and carefully,” Mao said Friday.
Jennifer Jett reported from Hong Kong, and Ken Dilanian, Frank Thorp, Abigail Williams and Monica Alba from Washington.