BEIJING — China said Thursday that US allegations that a downed Chinese balloon was part of an extensive surveillance program amounted to «information warfare against China.»

The Pentagon said Wednesday that the Chinese balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday was part of a program involving several such aircraft that China has been operating for «several years.»

At Thursday’s daily briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning repeated China’s insistence that the large unmanned balloon was a civilian weather aircraft that had accidentally strayed off course and that the United States he had «overreacted» by shooting him down.

«It’s irresponsible,» Mao said at a daily briefing. The latest accusations «may be part of the US side’s information war against China.»

China’s defense minister declined to take a phone call from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to discuss the balloon issue on Saturday, the Pentagon said, and China has not responded to questions about which government department or company the balloon belonged to. , or how he planned to continue. He vowed to take further action on the matter.

US officials have dismissed China’s claims and agents from the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service are cataloging debris recovered from the ocean and transporting it for further processing.

When similar balloons passed over US territory four times during the Trump and Biden administrations, the United States did not immediately identify them as Chinese surveillance balloons, Brig. General Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary.

But he said that «subsequent intelligence analysis» allowed the United States to confirm that they were part of a Chinese spy effort and to learn «much more» about the program.

«I can assure you that this was not for civilian purposes… We are 100% clear on that,» Ryder said.

Senior administration officials briefed members of Congress on the Chinese balloon surveillance program in classified sessions Wednesday and Thursday.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a visit to Beijing scheduled for this week in the wake of the incident, dealing a setback to efforts to stop further deterioration of bilateral relations that have soared to their lowest level in decades. .

He said the United States has informed dozens of countries about the program, which officials say has been active on five continents.

“The United States was not the only target,” he told a news conference with visiting NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg.

Blinken said he and Stoltenberg had discussed the «systemic and tactical challenges» China poses to the alliance and the importance of combating them.

With China’s tone growing sharper over the balloon incident, it was unclear when Blinken’s visit might be rescheduled.

Despite that, China’s Commerce Ministry said on Thursday that it welcomed a proposed visit by US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, saying: «It is very important that both sides maintain normal communication «.