A second Chinese spy balloon was reportedly flying over Latin America, according to the Pentagon, in comments that came as the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, postponed a visit to China after the intrusion of a separate high-altitude Chinese balloon into US airspace.
“We are seeing reports of a balloon transiting Latin America,” Pentagon spokesperson Pat Ryder said, a day after the first craft was spotted over US skies. “We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon.”
The Pentagon did not specify the balloon’s exact location, but a US official told CNN it did not appear to be currently heading towards the US.
In South Korea on Friday, Blinken said he had spoken with Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, and “made clear that the presence of this surveillance balloon in US airspace is a clear violation of US sovereignty and international law”.
Blinken said, however, that he had told Wang that “the United States is committed to diplomatic engagement with China and that I plan to visit Beijing when conditions allow”.
“The first step is getting the surveillance asset out of our airspace. That’s what we’re focused on,” he told reporters.
Channels of communication remained open between the two countries, a state department spokesperson said, stressing that the trip had only been postponed and not cancelled.
Blinken would have been the first US secretary of state to visit China since October 2018, signalling a thaw after a period of friction under former president Donald Trump.
Last month, Blinken said he would use the trip to help establish “guardrails” to prevent the relationship from escalating into all-out conflict.
China apologised for the presence of the craft in US airspace, claiming it was a weather balloon that had been blown off course, but US officials made clear they did not believe that explanation.
Asked about the balloon, the Chinese foreign ministry said on Friday: “The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace … It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes … The airship deviated far from its planned course.”
A later statement from China’s foreign ministry claimed that some politicians and media in the US were taking advantage of the incident to “discredit” China.
A White House spokesperson said there was a consensus among President Joe Biden and his advisers that Blinken should not travel to China this weekend and stressed the balloon does not pose a military or physical threat.
Republican lawmakers pounced on the balloon incident, casting Biden – who has largely preserved and at times expanded Trump’s hawkish policies on China – as weak.
Michael McCaul, the Republican chair of the House foreign affairs committee, on Friday demanded to know why the administration had not shot the balloon down, accusing the president of allowing it to pose “a direct and ongoing national security threat to the US homeland”.
Republican senator Jerry Moran said on Friday he had received reports of the balloon over north-eastern Kansas.
“China invaded US airspace and the Biden admin needs to take action to address this situation. Further delay is unacceptable,” he said.
A US defence official said earlier that Biden had asked for military options but that the Pentagon believed shooting the object down would put people on the ground at risk from debris.
The balloon had “limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective”, the defence official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
The Pentagon expected the balloon to continue travelling over US airspace for a few more days, a spokesperson said.
The craft has taken a flight path that would carry it over a number of sensitive sites, officials say. They include military bases in Montana which are home to intercontinental ballistic missile silos.
The postponement of Blinken’s trip, which had been arranged in November by Biden and the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, will set back efforts to resolve several points of friction, particularly over the future of Taiwan, and each side’s military posture in the Indo-Pacific.
Beijing this week strenuously objected to a deal between the Philippines and the US in which Manila has granted the US expanded access to its military bases. Under the deal, the US will have additional access to Philippine bases for joint training, storing equipment and supplies, and building facilities, though not to establish a permanent presence.