Posted BY: Daily Mail

China has claimed a suspected spy balloon flying over the United States is a ‘civilian’ airship that blew off course before it ended up over nuclear sites in Montana.

The detection of the balloon triggered alarm in the White House and the Pentagon – and sparked calls for the US military to shoot it down.

Beijing had urged calm while it established the ‘facts’ before a statement on Friday morning said the balloon was a meteorological research device that had ‘deviated far from its planned course’. The Chinese foreign ministry said it regretted that the balloon had mistakenly entered US airspace.

The balloon’s discovery sparked a diplomatic crisis on the eve of a planned visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to China that is also slated to include a landmark meeting with President Xi Jinping.

The balloon – which is as large as three buses – was detected earlier this week and recently crossed over the airspace in Montana, triggering fears it could be monitoring nuclear sites there. Canada was also monitoring a ‘potential second incident’ on Friday as officials worked to determine whether a separate sighting was the same balloon.

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Montana Senator Steve Daines feared the Chinese spy balloon floating above the state was targeting nuclear missile fields installed there.

US officials said they have taken ‘custody’ of the balloon. They are thought to believe it has ‘limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective’.

The balloon was detected days before a planned trip to Beijing by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, which is slated to begin on Sunday. Republican senators have called on Blinken to cancel the trip, which was agreed by Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

In a statement on Thursday, the Canadian government said: ‘A high-altitude surveillance balloon was detected and its movements are being actively tracked by North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

‘Canadians are safe and Canada is taking steps to ensure the security of its airspace, including the monitoring of a potential second incident.

‘NORAD, the Canadian Armed Forces, the Department of National Defence, and other partners have been assessing the situation and working in close coordination.

‘Canada’s intelligence agencies are working with American partners and continue to take all necessary measures to safeguard Canada’s sensitive information from foreign intelligence threats.

‘We remain in frequent contact with our American allies as the situation develops.’

Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who served under Trump, accused China of a ‘brazen act’.

He told CNN the US should ‘[bring] it down so that we can capture the equipment and understand exactly what they are doing. Are they taking pictures? Are they intercepting signals?’

‘Failing that I would definitely shoot it down, provided that there’s no risk to people on the ground.’

Esper said it was a matter of ‘great concern’ that the balloon was flying close to missile fields and strategic bomber bases.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, said the spy balloon was alarming but not surprising.

‘The level of espionage aimed at our country by Beijing has grown dramatically more intense & brazen over the last 5 years,’ Rubio said on Twitter.

Arkansas’ Republican Senator, Tom Cotton, said: ‘President Biden should stop coddling and appeasing the Chinese communists. Bring the balloon down now and exploit its tech package, which could be an intelligence bonanza.

‘And President Biden and Secretary Austin need to answer if this balloon was detected over Alaskan airspace. If so, why didn’t we bring it down there? If not, why not?

‘As usual, the Chinese Communists’ provocations have been met with weakness and hand-wringing.’  

The discovery has put the militaries and intelligence services of the United States and Canada on alert.

F-22 fight jets were mobilized to track the device as it oved over Montana, which borders Canada, on Wednesday. 

A US defense official said it entered US airspace ‘a couple days ago’ but its exact location has not been shared.