The US accuses China of sending a massive spy balloon over the United States. Beijing rejects the accusation of spying – but also expresses regret. US Secretary of State Blinken is now postponing his planned trip to China.

New irritations in the relationship between the USA and China: The US military accuses Beijing of having placed a large spy balloon over the north of the United States. The Department of Defense in Washington also reported considering shooting down the balloon. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has therefore postponed his planned trip to China, according to international media, citing US sources. Postponing the trip could herald a new phase in strained relations between Washington and Beijing.

After much hesitation, China admitted on Friday that it was a Chinese flying object – but that it was only used for scientific purposes and had accidentally deviated from its trajectory. The Foreign Ministry in Beijing also expressed regret.

According to the Pentagon, the balloon was spotted over the northwestern US state of Montana on Wednesday. A few days ago he entered US airspace. Its trajectory will be followed closely. A senior Defense Department official said Department Chief Lloyd Austin had therefore rounded up the Pentagon’s leadership team. President Joe Biden was also informed and requested military options.

Launching the balloon was considered, the official said. F-22 fighter jets were provisionally put on standby and air traffic in Montana’s largest city, Billings, was temporarily suspended. Because of the danger of falling debris, the decision was ultimately made not to destroy the balloon. However, various precautions have been taken to protect sensitive information.

According to the Wall Street Journal, 150 Minuteman III ICBMs armed with nuclear warheads are stored at a US Air Force base in Montana. However, a balloon’s espionage systems only provide “limited added value” compared to information that China can collect with satellites.

“We are currently assuming that this balloon has only a limited additional use for information gathering,” the Pentagon said. Similar incidents have happened in the past. This time, however, the balloon stayed longer than usual over the United States. It does not pose a military threat or danger to people on the ground. The balloon is also harmless to aircraft due to its extreme altitude. The Pentagon official said the US government has contacted Beijing through various channels. “We made it clear to them how seriously we take this matter.”

The Chinese government initially said on Friday that it was investigating the reports and warned against hasty speculation. “We collect and verify the facts,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning. “We hope that both sides will treat the matter with a cool head.”

Another statement from Beijing later followed: The Chinese Foreign Ministry rejected the allegation of espionage, but admitted a certain border crossing. It was a “civilian” Chinese airship for research purposes, primarily of a meteorological nature, which “deviated far from its planned course” due to its limited ability to steer itself due to strong westerly winds. A ministry spokesman added, “China regrets unexpected entry into U.S. airspace due to force majeure.”

It was an open question whether the US government would be satisfied with this explanation. In any case, there were already loud calls from the ranks of the Republicans for a tougher approach towards Beijing. Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy called it a “brazen disregard for US sovereignty”. Biden must not remain silent on this “destabilizing action”.

Former Pentagon chief Mark Esper, who was in office under Republican President Donald Trump, also spoke of a “brazen action”. Esper told CNN on Friday: “The Chinese have been spying on us for decades.” At the political level, there must be a clear message that the United States will not put up with this. “You have to treat the Chinese as equals,” he warned. “They only respond to determination.”

Foreign Minister Blinken is expected to hold talks in Beijing for two days on Sunday and, according to the New York Times, will also meet President Xi Jinping there. The US government has so far confirmed the travel plans themselves, but has not given any details about the program. It is the first visit by a US Secretary of State since October 2018 – and it comes at a difficult time anyway.

Relations between the US and China are severely strained. Issues of contention include China’s backing for Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, Chinese threats against Taiwan, Beijing’s disputed claims in the South China Sea, the trade war, and American export controls on high-tech. China, in turn, accuses the USA of wanting to curb its rise and of pursuing a new Cold War. The irritations surrounding the mysterious balloon are now added.