China has said a suspected spy balloon that has been flying over the US was in fact a “civilian airship” that had strayed into American airspace.
The US has said it believed the object was a high-altitude surveillance balloon flying over sensitive sites to collect information.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a high-profile visit to China which had been due to begin on Sunday – while President Joe Biden, speaking at a White House conference about jobs, refused to answer questions on the topic.
It comes after the Foreign Ministry in Beijing admitted the balloon had come from China – but said it was for meteorological and other scientific research.
It added it regretted it had blown off its course.
However, a US official earlier said: “Clearly the intent of this balloon is for surveillance.”
The blimp was spotted over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday – close to one of the US’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
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It flew over the Aleutian Islands, off the coast of Alaska, and through Canada before entering the US.
The balloon is still in US airspace but officials declined to say where it is now.
They acknowledged it was operating above civilian air traffic and below “outer space”, but declined to say how high it was flying.
Military and defence leaders have considered shooting the balloon out of the sky but decided against it due to the safety risk from falling debris.
US defence secretary Lloyd Austin convened a meeting of senior military and defence leaders to review the threat profile of the balloon and possible responses, which were presented to US President Joe Biden on Wednesday.
The US has engaged Chinese officials “with urgency” and communicated the seriousness of the situation.
Pentagon press secretary Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said: “The United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now.
“The US government to include NORAD (North American Aerospace Defence Command), continues to track and monitor it closely.
“The balloon is currently travelling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.
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“Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years.
“Once the balloon was detected, the US government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”
China and the US have experienced tensions of late, clashing over Taiwan and China’s human rights record and its military activity in the South China Sea.