HONG KONG — China said Friday that the suspected high-altitude surveillance balloon hovering over the United States was in fact a “civilian airship” used for weather research that had been blown off course.
“The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes,” the Beijing’s foreign ministry said in a statement on its website.
“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 that due to strong winds and a lack of steering capability the object “deviated far from its planned course.” The balloon has been spotted in Billings, Montana, some 6,000 miles away from China.
Earlier, Canada said it was monitoring a “potential second incident” relating to a balloon. China has yet to respond to this statement.
U.S. officials said on Thursday the military was monitoring the balloon, which flew over the Aleutian Islands and through Canada before moving into U.S. airspace. A senior defense official said the U.S. was confident that the balloon belonged to China, which has flown stratospheric balloons over the country before but not usually for this long.
The balloon revelation comes days before Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due to visit China, the highest-ranking Biden administration official to do so. Mao said she had no information on whether his visit would be affected.
In a brief statement late Thursday, the Canadian Department of National Defence 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 department did not immediately respond to phone calls and emails requesting additional information.
The senior defense official said Thursday the balloon was still over the U.S. 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.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said Thursday that he was requesting a briefing on the matter for the Gang of Eight, which includes Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate as well as the chairs and ranking minority members of the House and Senate intelligence committees.
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,” Mao said at a daily briefing.
“We hope that both sides can handle this together calmly and carefully,” she added.
Source: NBC News