Canada has summoned China’s ambassador after an alleged Chinese spy balloon entered U.S. airspace this week. Also in response, Secretary of State Antony Blinken is postponing a trip to Beijing, the U.S. State Department said Friday.
Mr. Blinken changed his plans a mere hours before he was scheduled to depart for China on Friday night.
The balloon is believed to have drifted across Alaska and British Columbia in recent days before crossing the Canada-U.S. border into Montana.
Canada’s Department of National Defence said it is monitoring a “potential second incident,” but Defence Minister Anita Anand’s office was unable to elaborate on this when asked Friday.
China has acknowledged the balloon is theirs, but played down the matter, calling it a civilian airship for meteorological research that blew off course. The Pentagon rejected this characterization, saying it believes the balloon is used for intelligence-gathering.
China’s foreign ministry said a visit had not been announced by the U.S. and China. “The U.S. making any such announcement is their own business, and we respect that,” it said in a statement.
Pentagon spokesman Brigadier-General Pat Ryder said Friday that another Chinese balloon was spotted “transiting” Latin America, without disclosing its exact location.
In Canada, Department of Global Affairs spokeswoman Charlotte MacLeod said Ottawa called on Chinese envoy Cong Peiwu to explain what happened. Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly tweeted that she had talked with Mr. Blinken by telephone Friday regarding the matter.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland left no doubt about how she viewed the Chinese craft, calling it a “high-altitude surveillance balloon” in remarks Friday.
Mr. Blinken would have been the most senior Biden administration official to visit China, building on a meeting between the U.S. President and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, late last year. The trip had been set to go ahead as the United States is expanding its military footprint in Asia through a new agreement with the Philippines, and amid bellicose rhetoric from both Washington and Beijing over the self-governing territory of Taiwan.
Steffan Watkins, an Ottawa-based research consultant who tracks aircraft and ships worldwide, said based on aircraft movement data collected by ADSB Exchange, an open-source initiative, it appears Canada dispatched a CP-140 surveillance aircraft from Comox, B.C., to monitor the balloon Jan. 31 while it was flying over the Canadian Rockies.
Flight-tracking data also suggests Canada intercepted the balloon with CF-18s on Jan. 31, assisted by a CC-150 Polaris refueling tanker, he said.
A suspected Chinese spy balloon has been flying over the United States for a couple of days, U.S. officials said on Thursday, in what would be a brazen act just days ahead of a planned trip to Beijing by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The U.S. government said this week it had spotted the balloon over Montana, home to a U.S. Air Force base and nuclear missile silos, shortly before Mr. Blinken was due to leave for Beijing. ABC News reported that Mr. Blinken did not want to blow the incident out of proportion by cancelling the trip, but he also did not want it to dominate his time in China.
The State Department said the presence of the balloon was a violation of U.S. sovereignty, as well as of international law, and Mr. Blinken had objected about it to Chinese officials earlier in the week. He decided not to go on Friday morning, and conveyed this to Wang Yi, director of China’s Central Foreign Affairs Office, a U.S. government official in a background briefing said. The Globe is not identifying the official because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Going ahead with the visit would have ensured that the balloon overtook all other potential issues on the agenda, the department said. Still, Mr. Blinken plans to make the trip at some point in the future, it added, and the lines of communication with China are still open.
In a statement late Friday local time, China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry acknowledged that the balloon was Chinese but said it was a “civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological purposes.” The balloon was blown off course, the statement said, adding that “the Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace.”
The balloon dominated news coverage in the U.S. for hours before reports that Mr. Blinken’s trip had been cancelled. Some Republican lawmakers called for it to be shot out of the sky and accused the Defence Department of a “lack of urgency.”
The U.S. Department of Defence rejected China’s claim that the balloon was for weather monitoring purposes.
“The fact is, we know that it’s a surveillance balloon,” Brig.-Gen. Ryder told a briefing at the Pentagon on Friday. “The balloon has violated U.S. airspace and international law, which is unacceptable.”
The balloon is currently travelling at 60,000 feet, or more than 18,000 metres, above the ground, far higher than commercial airline flights, he said. As of midday Friday, it was moving east and had arrived over the central United States.
Brig.-Gen. Ryder said the U.S. government had decided not to shoot the balloon down because of the risk of falling debris killing or injuring someone, or damaging property. That assessment could change, however.
The balloon does not pose a threat to anyone on ground, Brig.-Gen Ryder said, and does not itself appear to contain any radioactive material. He said the military took steps to protect nuclear facilities in Montana from the balloon’s intelligence-gathering efforts, but did not detail what those were.
The Pentagon is currently only tracking the one balloon, he added, using “multiple means.”
Brig.-Gen. Ryder said this is not the first time China has been caught sending spy balloons over U.S. territory, but he declined to detail when or where the previous incidents occurred. He also did not provide an up-to-date location for the airship.
“The public certainly has the ability to look up in the sky and see where the balloon is,” he said.
The balloon is manoeuvrable and has “a large payload” of surveillance equipment underneath it, Brig.-Gen. Ryder said, suggesting that the Chinese government can steer the craft to find potential targets for intelligence collection.
With files from the Associated Press and The Canadian Press