Suspected Chinese Spy Balloon Prompts US Secretary of State to Cancel Beijing Trip

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken says it's a surveillance balloon, but China says it's used for meteorological research and that it drifted off course.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
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Eric Mack
2 min read
A large balloon in US airspace

The big balloon was recorded on video over Montana.

Chase Doak; video screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

US federal officials said this week that a Chinese surveillance balloon had been spotted over the United States and Canada, but China insisted Friday that it's a "civilian airship." The Biden administration clearly isn't buying that. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday that his department is "confident" the high-altitude craft is being used for surveillance and canceled his planned trip to Beijing this weekend. 

"It's a violation of international law," Blinken added at a later press conference. "It's irresponsible."

A Pentagon spokesperson said the military has been tracking the balloon for several days and that President Joe Biden was first briefed about it Tuesday. The administration has been advised not to shoot it down out of safety concerns on the ground. 

In an update Friday, Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters the balloon continues to move east over the central US and doesn't "present a military or physical threat to people on the ground." Ryder also said repeatedly that the craft has the ability to maneuver and doesn't seem to have simply drifted off course. 

"Clearly ... it's violated US airspace. And again, we've communicated that fact" to the Chinese government, Ryder said. 

A spokesperson for China's foreign ministry told reporters that the airship is used for mainly meteorological research purposes, calling the entry into US airspace unintended and regretful. 

Meanwhile, pilots continue to report sightings of the balloon. It's also possible to see it from the ground with a decent zoom lens. Not surprisingly, footage of the interloper has begun to show up on social media. Officials say they'll continue to monitor its travels for now.