Chinese authorities said Friday that a suspected Beijing-operated spy balloon spotted hovering over sensitive U.S. airspace was in fact a civilian airship intended for scientific research.
China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that westerly wind had caused the airship to stray into U.S. territory, describing the incident as a result of “force majeure” — or greater force — for which it was not responsible.
“The airship comes from China and is of a civilian nature, used for scientific research such as meteorology,” according to a Google translation of a statement on the foreign ministry’s website.
“Affected by the westerly wind and with limited self-control ability, the airship seriously deviated from the scheduled route,” it said.
“China regrets that the airship strayed into the United States due to force majeure. China will continue to maintain communication with the US to properly handle the unexpected situation,” it added.
The statement comes hours after Beijing urged Washington to remain “cool-headed” amid its investigation into reports that the balloon had been hovering over sensitive airspace in the northern U.S.
The U.S. accused China on Thursday of operating what it said was a possible surveillance balloon over locations that house nuclear weapons, further escalating tensions between the two superpowers and prompting U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a scheduled trip to Beijing this weekend.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a press briefing earlier Friday that authorities were still learning about the matter, adding that politicians and the public should withhold judgment “before we have a clear understanding of the facts.”
“We have noticed relevant reports and are learning about this matter. What I want to emphasize is that speculation and conjecture are not conducive to a proper settlement of the matter before the matter is clarified,” Mao said, via an NBC translation.
“China is a responsible country, and we act in accordance with international law. We have no intention to violate other countries’ sovereignty and airspace,” Mao said, according to a Sky News translation.
“As I said, we are gathering and verifying the facts. We hope relevant parties would handle the matter in a cool-headed way,” she added.
Footage of what appears to be a high-altitude balloon was captured 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 U.S. but declined to say where it is now.
After the sighting, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin convened a meeting of senior military and defense leaders and other combatant commanders to review the threat profile of the stratospheric balloon and brief President Joe Biden on possible responses.
Such options included shooting down the balloon. That action was ultimately dismissed because of the potential risk to safety and security of people on the ground from the possible debris field.
A senior defense official said authorities are continuing to monitor the balloon closely and will take “all necessary steps” to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information.
“Currently we assess that this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective over and above what the PRC can do through other means,” the official said. “Nevertheless, we are taking all necessary steps to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information.”
The balloon does not pose a threat to civil aviation because of its altitude, the official added.
The latest escalation in U.S.-China tensions comes as Blinken was scheduled to visit to Beijing on Sunday.
However, the secretary of state postponed his trip Friday, according to media reports, which stated that he did not want the balloon to dominate his meetings with Chinese officials.
The White House and Pentagon referred queries to the State Department, which didn’t immediately return CNBC’s request for comment.
Blinken was due to meet China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Qin Gang, and possibly Chinese President Xi Jinping, during a two-day visit to China — the first such visit by a U.S. secretary of State in nearly six years and the first by a Biden administration Cabinet secretary.
The meeting was set by Biden and Xi at the G-20 in Bali, Indonesia, in November, in a bid to improve ties that have grown increasingly fraught amid disputes over Russia’s war in Ukraine, trade, Taiwan, human rights and China’s claims in the South China Sea.