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Blinken postpones China trip over ‘violation of US sovereignty’ by Beijing

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (Getty Images photo)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed a visit to China after Washington accused Beijing of violating the country’s sovereignty by flying what it called a spy balloon over the United States.

China on Friday rejected US accusations over the surveillance balloon sighted flying over the United States, saying that the balloon is a civilian meteorological "airship" used for scientific research purposes. Beijing expressed regret that the "airship" had strayed into US airspace.

The Pentagon said on Thursday it was tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon over the United States. Officials said the US military considered shooting it down over Montana on Wednesday but eventually decided against this because of the safety risk from debris, according to Reuters.

The Pentagon said Friday night, another Chinese surveillance balloon was flying over Latin America. 

"We are seeing reports of a balloon transiting Latin America. We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon," Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder said in a statement, without specifying the balloon's exact location. 

White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said President Joe Biden was briefed on the balloon flight and there was an administration "consensus that it was not appropriate to travel to the People's Republic of China at this time."

Jean-Pierre said “the presence of this balloon in our airspace, it is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law. It is unacceptable this occurred."

A senior US military official said on Thursday that the Pentagon spotted the balloon several days ago as it made its way over the northern United States.

“We are confident that this high-altitude surveillance balloon belongs to the [People’s Republic of China],” the Pentagon spokesman said.

On Friday, Ryder said the balloon had changed course and was floating eastward at about 60,000 feet (18,300 meters) above the central United States and demonstrating a capability to maneuver.

Commercial forecaster AccuWeather said the balloon would potentially leave the United States into the Atlantic on Saturday evening.

At a news conference with South Korea's visiting foreign minister on Friday,

Blinken said at a news conference with South Korea's visiting foreign minister on Friday he had told Wang Yi, director of China's Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, that the incident on the eve of his trip was an "irresponsible act" by China, and he would visit when conditions allowed.

Blinken said he would not put a date on when he might go to China and the focus was on resolving the current incident. "The first step is ... getting the surveillance asset, out of our air space," he said.

The top US diplomat added that Washington would maintain open lines of communication with China.

The Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, said the balloon should never have been allowed in US airspace and could have been shot down over water.

"I am calling on the Biden administration to quickly take steps to remove the Chinese spy balloon from U.S. airspace," he said in a statement.

In a statement late on Friday, the Chinese foreign ministry confirmed that "the airship is from China and is civilian in nature, used for meteorological and other scientific research. Due to the influence of westerly winds and its limited control capability, the airship deviated from its intended course."

The Chinese statement further expressed regret over the unintended incident and said that it would continue to maintain communications with the US.

"China regrets that the airship strayed into the United States by mistake due to force majeure. China will continue to maintain communication with the US side to properly handle this accident," it said.

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