WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed a visit to China that had been expected to start on Friday (Feb 3) after an alleged Chinese spy balloon was tracked flying across the United States, a US official said.

ABC News cited an US official as saying Blinken did not want to blow the situation out of proportion by cancelling his visit, but also did not want the balloon incident to dominate his meetings with Chinese officials.

A US official confirmed the postponement to Reuters.

China earlier expressed regret that what it called a “civilian” airship had strayed into US territory after being blown off course, an incident that sparked a political furore in the United States.

In a statement on Friday, China’s foreign ministry said the balloon was for civilian meteorological and other scientific purposes and that it regretted that the airship had strayed into US airspace.

It said it would continue to communicate with the United States to “properly handle” the unexpected situation. A Chinese government spokesperson said earlier that “China has no intention of violating the land territory and airspace of any sovereign country”.

US officials said they raised the matter with their Chinese counterparts through diplomatic channels. “We have communicated to them the seriousness with which we take this issue,” a US official said.

The postponement of Blinken’s trip, which was agreed to in November by Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, will be a blow to those on both sides who saw it as an overdue opportunity to stabilize an increasingly fractious relationship. The last visit by a US secretary of state was in 2017.

Pentagon spokesperson Air Force Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told reporters on Thursday that the government was tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon over the continental United States and said it was “travelling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground”.

US military leaders had considered shooting down the balloon over Montana on Wednesday but eventually President Joe Biden decided against it because of the safety risk from debris, US officials said on Thursday.

Separately, Canada summoned China’s ambassador on Thursday after what Ottawa described as a high-altitude surveillance balloon was detected over North American airspace, a spokesperson for the Canadian foreign ministry said on Friday.

“We will continue to vigorously express our position to Chinese officials through multiple channels,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

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