Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed a planned high-stakes weekend diplomatic trip to China as the Biden administration weighs a broader response to the discovery of a high-altitude Chinese balloon flying over sensitive sites in the western United States, a US official said Friday.
The abrupt decision comes despite China's claim that the balloon was a weather research satellite that had blown off-course. The US has described it as a surveillance satellite.
The decision came just hours before Blinken had been due to depart Washington for Beijing and marked a new blow to already strained US-Chinese relations. Officials said Blinken and President Joe Biden determined it was best not to proceed with the trip at this time.
A suspected Chinese spy balloon, said to be the size of three buses, was spotted over the United States' airspace, the Pentagon has said, a development that has further strained the already tense bilateral ties.
Blinken's visit was expected to be a significant trip meant to follow up on President Joe Biden's meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in November last year in Bali, Indonesia.
Reacting to the Pentagon's report, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson confirmed that the balloon was a Chinese 'civilian airship' which had deviated from its planned route.
"The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes," the spokesperson said in a statement posted on the Chinese foreign ministry's website.
"Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure," the statement said.