Beijing expresses “regret” that one of its balloons breached US national airspace, a day after reports that the airship was hovering over Montana, leading the Air Force to scramble fighter aircraft and legislators to demand briefings on the Biden administration’s handling of the matter.
The Foreign Ministry verified on Friday that the balloon is Chinese and that it is a civilian airship used mostly for meteorological purposes. According to the ministry, it deviated from its original trajectory due to strong gusts that hampered its steering capabilities.
“The Chinese side regrets the unintentional entry of the airship into US airspace owing to force majeure,” the ministry said, referring to an occurrence that is beyond a country’s control. “The Chinese side will continue to communicate with the US side and address this unexpected circumstance caused by force majeure appropriately.”
The government previously stated that any violations were inadvertent and encouraged calm in Washington.
“China is a responsible country,” said Mao Ning, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, at a press conference on Friday. “It has always rigorously abided by international law and has no intention of breaching the territory and airspace of any sovereign country. As I have stated, we are learning about the verification situation and hope that both parties will handle it calmly and prudently.”
The Pentagon had already determined that the balloon was Chinese and had been deployed to the United States to collect vital information.
According to a senior Defense Department official, the US prepared fighter jets to fire down the balloon, but senior Pentagon authorities decided against it owing to concerns about falling debris injuring civilians on the ground.
An official stated that the balloon has “little value” in comparison to the intelligence China can obtain through satellites, but that the department is taking “measures” to protect against possible foreign intelligence collection of critical information. To address delicate concerns, the official requested anonymity.
The news of the balloon sighting enraged politicians, including Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who demanded an intelligence briefing.
“China’s flagrant disdain for US sovereignty is a destabilising conduct that must be addressed, and President Biden cannot remain mute,” McCarthy wrote on Twitter. “I’d like to seek a Gang of Eight briefing.”
The balloon was seen flying above Montana, including Malmstrom Air Force Base, which is home to ground-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Senator Steve Daines of Montana demanded a briefing from the Biden administration Thursday night.
“Given the rising hostility and destabilisation aimed against the United States and our friends throughout the world, I am disturbed that this surveillance balloon was able to invade our country’s and Montana’s airspace,” the Republican said in a statement.
The incident occurs as Secretary of State Antony Blinken prepares to travel to Beijing for the first time. Following the development, no adjustments to the trip have been disclosed.