U.S. postpones Blinken’s China visit in uproar over alleged spy balloon
WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed his upcoming trip to Beijing after the U.S. detected what it called a Chinese surveillance balloon lingering at high altitude over sensitive nuclear sites in Montana.
Blinken was set to have meetings in Beijing early next week in the first such visit by a top U.S. diplomat in five years. But the presence of the balloon — which the Pentagon decided not to shoot down — led officials to decide that going now would send the wrong signal.
In a call with Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi, Blinken made clear “the presence of this surveillance balloon in U.S. airspace, is a clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law,” the top U.S. diplomat told a briefing Friday.
“China’s decision to fly a surveillance balloon over the continental U.S. is both unacceptable and irresponsible — that’s what this is about,” Blinken said. “It created conditions that undermined the very purpose of the trip.”
President Joe Biden was first briefed on the balloon on Tuesday and asked the military to present options, JeanPierre said. Biden was told that the Pentagon opposed shooting the balloon down because of the risk posed by debris to people on the ground.
China took unusually conciliatory steps to smooth over the incident Friday, with the Foreign Ministry saying it was “regretful” that a civilian airship entered U.S. airspace because of forces beyond its control. It said the balloon was conducting climate research.
But the U.S. didn’t buy that explanation. Blinken said the administration was “confident this is a Chinese surveillance balloon.” He declined to say when he might reschedule the trip, arguing that “job one” was getting the balloon out of U.S. airspace first.
The balloon was first spotted earlier this week and had been loitering over Montana, home to intercontinental-ballistic-missile silos, a senior Defense Department official initially said. The official said the balloon posed no intelligence threat and such incursions have happened before.
The balloon has continued to move eastward and is now over the central U.S., Brigadier
General Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Friday. He said the balloon is maneuverable and has changed its course but declined to say whether it’s now under China’s control. He said it currently poses no danger to civilians on the ground and it’s above the level of air traffic, while shooting it down could pose dangers from its “debris field.”
Ryder said the balloon is expected to remain in U.S. airspace for a “few days.” He said its flight violated international law.
The Pentagon’s initial announcement about the balloon on Thursday prompted an outcry from Republican lawmakers, with Rep. Mike Gallagher, the chairman of a new House committee meant to highlight the Chinese threat, saying the presence of the balloon makes clear that China’s “recent diplomatic overtures do not represent a substantive change in policy.”
Earlier in the day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning cautioned the U.S. against “hyping” the incident. “We have no intention to violate other countries’ sovereignty and airspace,” Mao told a briefing, adding that she hoped “the relevant parties will handle the matter in a cool-headed way.”
Blinken’s trip was set to be the most senior U.S. visit to China since 2018. For the Biden administration, it’s part of an effort to keep the China rivalry from getting worse. For leaders in Beijing, it’s meant to signal China’s emergence from post-coronavirus pandemic lockdown and a desire to reconnect with the rest of the world.