A balloon flies in the sky over Billings, Montana, US, February 1, 2023, in this picture obtained from social media. Image Credit: Reuters

WASHINGTON/BEIJING: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will postpone his visit to China after a balloon was detected flying over the continental United States, according to media reports on Friday.

Blinken did not want the balloon to dominate his meetings with Chinese officials, ABC News reported, citing an unnamed US official. Bloomberg News also reported the trip will be postponed.

China earlier said that a balloon spotted over American airspace was used for weather research and was blown off course, despite US suspicion it was spying.

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The Pentagon decided not to shoot down the balloon, which was potentially flying over sensitive sites, because of concerns of hurting people on the ground.

The news came as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was expected to make his first trip to Beijing this weekend. The visit has not been formally announced, and it was not immediately clear if the balloon’s discovery would affect his travel plans. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said Friday she had no information on the trip.

Blinken would be the highest-ranking member of President Joe Biden’s administration to visit China, on a mission to mitigate a sharp downturn in relations between the countries.

In a statement late Friday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the balloon a was civilian airship used mainly for meteorological research. The ministry said the airship has limited “self-steering” capabilities and “deviated far from its planned course” because of winds.

“The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure,” the statement said, citing a legal term used to refer to events beyond one’s control.