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Blinken cancels China trip as Beijing offers excuse for balloon over Montana

China said a balloon seen in U.S. airspace is a civilian airship used primarily for weather research that had blown off course. Photo courtesy Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs
1 of 2 | China said a balloon seen in U.S. airspace is a civilian airship used primarily for weather research that had blown off course. Photo courtesy Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Feb. 3 (UPI) -- China's Foreign Ministry said Friday that the Chinese balloon seen flying over Montana is a civilian airship used mainly for meteorological research that deviated from its planned course.

The excuse didn't prevent U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken from later Friday announcing that, in response to the incident, he was postponing his planned trip to China.

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Calling the balloon's presence "unacceptable," Blinken said, "We are convinced this is a Chinese surveillance balloon."

China, however, explained it differently.

"The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes. Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course," the Chinese statement said. "The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure."

China's Foreign Ministry statement said China will "continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation."

The Pentagon confirmed Thursday that the U.S. military has been tracking the "high altitude surveillance balloon" flying over the continental United States.

According to the Pentagon, the balloon does not pose a military or physical threat and is flying well above commercial air traffic.

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Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said earlier that she hoped the two nations would respond to the incident "in a cool-headed and prudent manner."

"China is a responsible country and we always act in accordance with international law. We have no intention to violate the territory or airspace of any sovereign country," she said.

The Chinese balloon was first seen flying over Billings, Montana, Wednesday. Despite speculation that it is a spy balloon, a senior U.S. defense official said it has limited intelligence collection value.

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