China has claimed the balloon flying over the U.S. as its own. Here's everything you need to know.

China has claimed responsibility for a balloon spotted over Montana, apologizing and stating it was used for weather research.

“The airship is from China,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement Friday morning. “It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes. Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course.

“The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure. The Chinese side will continue communicating with the U.S. side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure.”

A balloon flies in the sky over Billings, Mont.
A balloon flies in the sky over Billings, Mont., on Thursday. (Chase Doak/via Reuters)

“We are aware of [China’s] statement. However, the fact is we know it’s a surveillance balloon, and I’m not going to be able to be more specific than that,” Defense Department press secretary Patrick Ryder said during Friday afternoon’s briefing. “We do know that the balloon has violated U.S. airspace and international law, which is unacceptable, and we’ve conveyed that to [China] at multiple levels.”

Ryder said that the balloon had moved over the center of the country and that the assessment was it currently posed no physical or military threat to civilians on the ground.

The Pentagon announced Thursday that a surveillance balloon it believed belonged to China was floating over Montana. The news came days before Secretary of State Antony Blinken was set to arrive in Beijing, the highest-ranking member of the Biden administration to visit the superpower.

Following China’s statement, the State Department announced that Blinken was postponing the visit, saying they had noted China’s “statement of regret but conveyed that this is an irresponsible act and a clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law that undermined the purpose of the trip.”

“The Secretary explained that in light of this ongoing issue, it would not be appropriate to visit Beijing at this time,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said. “He underscored 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.”

About the balloon

At a briefing Thursday, the Pentagon said the balloon had been observed via multiple methods, including piloted aircraft, for a number of days. A senior defense official said it wasn’t shot down because of concerns about the damage that could cause. CNN reported that the balloon was the size of three buses.

“We did assess that it was large enough to cause damage from the debris field if we downed it over an area,” the official said. “We had been looking at whether there was an option yesterday over some sparsely populated areas in Montana. But we just couldn’t buy down the risk enough to feel comfortable recommending shooting it down yesterday.”

Montana is home to one of the country’s three nuclear missile silos, located at Malmstrom Air Force Base. The official added that it was unlikely the balloon could provide additional surveillance data versus what China could get from a low-altitude satellite and that it didn’t pose a significant danger to the area in its current state, flying above commercial airline routes.

“Does it pose a threat to civilian aviation? Our assessment is it does not,” said the official. “Does it pose a significantly enhanced threat on the intelligence side? Our best assessment right now is that it does not. And so given that risk, that profile, we assess that the risk of downing it, even if the probability was low in a sparsely populated area of the debris falling and hurting somebody or damaging property, that it wasn’t worth it. And that was the recommendation of our military commanders.”

The White House has yet to issue a formal statement on the balloon, but President Biden was briefed and advised not to order it shot down.

China’s response

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning gestures during a press conference.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning at a press conference in Beijing in October. (Liu Zheng/AP)

“We have no intention to violate other countries’ sovereignty and airspace,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said Friday at a briefing prior to the statement claiming ownership of the balloon. “We are gathering and verifying the facts. We hope the relevant parties will handle the matter in a coolheaded way.

“China is a responsible country,” she added. “It has always strictly abided by international law and has no intention of violating the territory and airspace of any sovereign country. As I said just now, we are learning about the verification situation and hope that both sides can handle it calmly and cautiously.”

Mao also said she had no information regarding Blinken’s trip.

Republican response

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy at a news conference at the Capitol.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy at a news conference at the Capitol on Thursday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy called for a meeting of the “Gang of Eight” — the top congressional leaders from both parties — saying, “China’s brazen disregard for U.S. sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed, and President Biden cannot be silent.”

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., tweeted Thursday that Biden should have already shot the balloon down, saying that’s what former President Donald Trump would have done. However, the senior defense official said that “instances of this activity have been observed over the past several years, including prior to this administration.”

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., released a statement saying, “Given the increased hostility and destabilization around the globe aimed at the United States and our allies, I am alarmed by the fact that this spy balloon was able to infiltrate the airspace of our country and Montana.”