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How an Alleged Spy Balloon Derailed an Important U.S.-China Meeting

Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed an approaching trip to Beijing Friday after a suspected Chinese spy balloon was spotted floating high above the northern continental United States, U.S. officials said.

The decision came hours after the Chinese government confirmed the massive balloon belonged to them, while insisting it was merely a “civilian airship” used for weather research that accidentally wafted into U.S. airspace.

Canceling the long-planned trip underscores how seriously the White House views the incident despite the Chinese government’s public attempt at contrition. Blinken would’ve been the highest-ranking Biden Administration official to visit China and the first U.S. secretary of state to go to Beijing in six years. Although no details surrounding the trip were ever officially announced by the State Department, U.S. officials say he was scheduled to leave for Beijing Friday night.

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“After consultations with our interagency partners, as well as with Congress, we have concluded that the conditions are not right at this moment for Secretary Blinken to travel to China,” a senior State Department official says.

News of the balloon’s presence over the U.S. came late Thursday when senior U.S. defense officials told reporters the military was tracking its flightpath, which was detected above the Aleutian Islands near Alaska, then through Canada, and ultimately into the United States. “I can tell you that the balloon continues to move eastward and is currently over the center of the continental United States,” Pentagon spokesperson Brigadier General Pat Ryder said Friday.

Ronaldo Schemidt–AFP/ Getty ImagesUS Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference at the Waldorf Astoria in Jerusalem on Jan. 31, 2023.

The balloon has never posed a risk to Americans’ safety but it does remain over the U.S., and is expected to stay for a “few days,” he told reporters at the Pentagon. “It violated U.S. airspace,” he said. “It violated international law. We’ve communicated that to the government of China.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry admitted Friday in a statement on its website that the balloon did come from China. “It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes,” the ministry said, adding that the slow-moving, unmanned, white balloon had limited ability to course-correct its flightpath.

“The airship deviated far from its planned course,” the ministry said. “The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure. The Chinese side will continue communicating with the U.S. side and properly handle this unexpected situation.”

Republicans in Congress took notice. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy demanded a briefing for the “Gang of Eight,” a colloquial term for the Republican and Democrat Congressional leaders who are informed on classified intelligence matters from the executive branch. Meanwhile, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas called for the abrupt cancellation of Blinken’s trip.

Secretary Blinken should cancel his trip to China.

And President Biden must answer why he has not secured U.S. airspace.

— Tom Cotton (@SenTomCotton) February 2, 2023

The balloon was flying at 60,000 feet—an altitude twice that of normal civilian air traffic—but the Pentagon still considered shooting it down with fighter jets as it traveled over Montana. The state is home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, one of three bases that host nuclear-tipped Intercontinental ballistic missile fields.

Flights to and from Billings Logan International Airport were halted on Wednesday as U.S. commanders determined what to do with the balloon. In the end, following recommendations of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley and General Glen VanHerck, commander of U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the decision was made to not attempt a shoot-down out of fears such an act could create a debris field that would endanger Americans on the ground

The Canadian Department of National Defense said late Thursday it had also detected a high-altitude surveillance balloon that was being “actively tracked” by NORAD, which is a military organization that draws on intelligence from the U.S. and Canada. The statement did not make clear whether it was the same balloon that the U.S. was monitoring.

Surveillance balloons have been spotted above the United States before, U.S. officials said, but this one was acting differently than previous such airships. “It’s happened a handful of other times over the past few years, to include before this administration,” a senior defense official said on Thursday. “It is appearing to hang out for a longer period of time, this time around.”

Despite the public disclosures, U.S. officials still haven’t revealed what type of spy technology is on the Chinese balloon, only that the “large payload”—what’s described as basket of equipment under the craft—doesn’t give China any additional surveillance capabilities beyond what it already can collect through spy satellites currently orbiting the Earth.