It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a… Chinese spy balloon? According to China, the answer is a sheepish “uh, no.”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Friday that a balloon spotted over Montana Thursday was a civilian “airship” used primarily for meteorological research that drifted wildly off course. As for how the balloon end up in big sky country, which houses one of the nation’s nuclear launch facilities, China blamed the wind as well as the airship’s limited self-steering capabilities. Government officials apologized for their wayward balloon.
“The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure,” the country’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Friday.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken cancelled a planned trip to Beijing amid the hubbub over the balloon.
Earlier: The Chinese Foreign Ministry addressed the balloon incident in a daily briefing on Friday and stated it was “verifying” the situation, according to Reuters. Reports of a giant white spy balloon in sensitive air space in Montana, home to one of the nation’s three nuclear silos, captivated the internet on Thursday. They also traveled up the ladder, capturing the attention of U.S. military officials and President Joe Biden. At the briefing, the foreign ministry did not deny that the balloon belonged to China.
Spokesperson Mao Ning discouraged speculation and hype around the spy balloon, telling Washington to remain “cool-headed,” and asserted that China was a law-abiding country. Per the Associated Press, she pointed out that China hoped both sides could resolve the matter “calmly and carefully.”
“China is a responsible country and has always strictly abided by international laws, and China has no intention of violating the territory and airspace of any sovereign country,” Mao said.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., officials informed Chinese diplomats they found the spy balloon and communicated that this was a serious situation, Reuters reported. A Biden administration official told NBC News that the government was confident the spy balloon belonged to China.
For all the fuss about the spy balloon, it doesn’t seem to have been very effective. A U.S. official told Reuters that the spy balloon had “limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective.”
It’s not clear what will happen to China’s purported spy balloon now that its cover’s been blown. Top defense and military officials recommended Biden against shooting down the balloon because of the possible safety risks to the public from the debris. The AP reported that Biden accepted the recommendation.
Update 2/3/2023, 9:53 a.m. ET: This post has been updated with additional information from the Chinese Foreign Ministry.