A Chinese spy balloon cruised high above the U.S. heartland Friday as Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a high-stakes diplomatic visit to Beijing in protest.
The Pentagon said the unmanned surveillance airship posed no threat to civilians and said shooting it down was not an option due to the potential danger to people on the ground.
Blinken scrapped a planned visit to China as Republicans howled in outrage over what they called a dramatic provocation by the rival superpower.
Beijing apologized for what it claimed was a weather balloon that was blown off course.
The balloon was detected Thursday over the Big Sky country of Montana, which is home to a nuclear missile silo field at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
It moved eastward over the heartland of the central United States by lunchtime Friday and was expected to remain in U.S. airspace for several days on its current path.
President Biden declined to comment on the matter when questioned at an unrelated economic event. Former President Donald Trump, who is running to retake the White House, insisted the U.S. should shoot down the balloon.
The balloon was flying at about 60,000 feet, far above the altitudes used by commercial aircraft.
A senior American defense official said the U.S. prepared fighter jets to shoot down the balloon if ordered.
The Pentagon decided against that, noting that debris from the balloon could cause damage or deaths on the ground even in a sparsely populated area.
The incursion attracted quick and strong criticism from Republican leaders who are pushing a tougher line against China.
The White House said it would brief the so-called Gang of Eight congressional leaders about the incident early next week, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said.
Blinken’s long-anticipated face-to-face meetings with senior Chinese officials had been seen by both sides as a chance to find some areas of common ground.
The two superpowers are at odds over Taiwan, human rights, Russia’s war in Ukraine, trade policy and climate change among many big-ticket issues.
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