US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed an upcoming trip to Beijing after a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon was spotted in southern Montana on Thursday.
"The presence of this balloon in our airspace is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law and it is unacceptable that this has occurred," an unnamed senior US official told The Wall Street Journal. "We have concluded that the conditions are not right at this moment for Secretary Blinken to travel to China."
According to another unnamed US official cited by The New York Times, Blinken spoke with China's top foreign policy official, Wang Yi, on Friday morning and told him that the balloon's unauthorised presence in US airspace was "unacceptable". He then notified his Chinese counterpart of his decision not to fly to Beijing.
Blinken's trip, which had been scheduled for 5 and 6 February, would have been the first high-level meeting between Chinese and US officials to have taken place in Beijing in years. US-Chinese relations have deteriorated markedly in recent times due to major disagreements over trade, relations with Russia, and the status of Taiwan.
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Despite Blinken's decision not to travel, the official who spoke to The Wall Street Journal claimed that "channels of communication" between Washington and Beijing "remain open".
"We believe in diplomacy to responsibly manage the most complex bilateral relationship we have," the official said. "We are committed to maintaining open lines with the [China] at all times, including during this incident."
In a statement posted on the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, an unnamed spokesperson admitted that the balloon is of Chinese origin, but claimed that it is a "civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes".
The spokesperson added: "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 Chinese side will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure."