Top US diplomat Antony Blinken scraps rare Beijing trip aimed at easing escalating tensions between both global powers after US accuses China of violating its sovereignty.

A high altitude balloon floats over Billings, Mont., on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023.
A high altitude balloon floats over Billings, Mont., on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. (AP)

A huge, high-altitude Chinese balloon has sailed across the US, drawing severe Pentagon accusations of spying despite China's firm denials and forcing Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a high-stakes Beijing trip aimed at easing US-China tensions.

Fuzzy videos dotted social media sites on Friday as people with binoculars and telephoto lenses tried to find the "spy balloon" in the sky as it headed eastward over Kansas and Missouri at 60,000 feet.

Blinken's cancellation came despite China's claim that the balloon was merely a weather research "airship" that had blown off course. 

The Pentagon rejected that out of hand — as well as China's contention that the balloon, about the size of two school buses, was not being used for surveillance and had only limited navigational ability.

The balloon was detected over sensitive military sites in Montana but had moved eastward over the heartland of the central United States by midday and was expected to remain in US airspace for several days, officials said.

New blow to fractured ties 

The development marked a new blow to already strained US-Chinese relations that have been in a downward spiral for years over numerous issues. Still, US officials maintained that diplomatic channels remain open and that Blinken was willing to travel to China at "an appropriate time."

President Joe Biden declined to comment on the matter when questioned at an economic event.

Two 2024 reelection challengers, former president Donald Trump, and Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and UN ambassador, said the US should immediately shoot down the balloon.

A senior defence official said the US had prepared fighter jets, including F-22s, to shoot the balloon down if ordered. The Pentagon ultimately recommended against that, noting that even as the balloon was over a sparsely populated area of Montana, its size could create a debris field large enough to put people at risk.

Brigadier General Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, refused to say on Friday whether there was any new consideration of shooting the balloon down.

Ryder said it was at an altitude of about 60,000 feet, was maneuverable and had changed course. He said it currently was posing no threat.

READ MORE: Canada monitoring 'potential second incident' linked to spy balloon

China's claim not unfeasible

As for Blinken's trip, Jean-Pierre said a diplomatic visit to China was not appropriate at this time. She said that "the presence of this balloon in our airspace ... is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law and it is unacceptable this occurred."

Pentagon officials said Thursday that one of the places balloon was spotted was over Montana, which is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

Weather experts said China's claim that the balloon had gone off course was not unfeasible. China's account of wind patterns known as the Westerlies carrying a balloon to the western United States was "absolutely possible — not possible, likely," said Dan Jaffe, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at the University of Washington.

Still multiple US officials called the presence of the balloon "unacceptable" and said that message had been delivered by Blinken to Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi on Friday when he told them he was postponing his trip.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement that Blinken had told Wang that "the United States is committed to diplomatic engagement and maintaining open lines of communication, and that he would be prepared to visit Beijing as soon as conditions allow."

In a statement that approached an apology, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the balloon was a civilian airship used mainly for meteorological research. It said said the airship had limited "self-steering" capabilities and had "deviated far from its planned course" because of winds.

"The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure," the statement said, citing a legal term used to refer to events beyond one’s control.

READ MORE: 'Chinese spy balloon' spotted over western US

Source: TRTWorld and agencies