Blinken postpones China trip after spy balloon spotted over US

The Nation  |  Feb 04, 2023

 Blinken postpones China trip after spy balloon spotted over US
WASHINGTON-US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed his trip to China after a Chinese spy balloon flew across the US. A senior State Department official said conditions were not right at this time for what would have been the first high level US-China meeting there in years.

A Chinese apology was noted, the official said, but described the balloon as a clear violation of sovereignty and international law. The visit was to come amid fraying tensions between the US and China America’s top US diplomat was set to visit Beijing to hold talks on a wide range of issues, including security, Taiwan and Covid-19. 

But there was consternation on Thursday when US defence officials announced they were tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon over the United States. A senior state department official said that the balloon would have “narrowed the agenda” of any meetings with Chinese officials “in a way that would have been unhelpful and unconstructive”. 

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While the balloon was, the Pentagon said, “traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic” and did “not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground”, its presence sparked outrage. 

Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder flatly denied the Chinese government’s claim that the balloon traveling over the continental United States serves a civilian research purpose. “We are aware of the (People’s Republic of China)’s statement,” Ryder said at a press briefing at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. Former US President Donald Trump was among those calling for the US military to shoot it down.

On Friday, China finally acknowledged the balloon was its property, saying that it was a civilian airship used for meteorological research, which deviated from its route because of bad weather. A statement from China’s Foreign Ministry said that it regretted the incident and would work with the US to resolve the issue.

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However, the state department official said that while the US acknowledged China’s claim about the balloon’s purpose, it stood the assessment that it was being used for surveillance.  Another trip by Mr Blinken to China would be planned “at the earliest opportunity” another senior state department official said, adding that Washington planned to maintain “open lines of communication” about the incident.  The official added that the State Department had informed close US allies about the violation of US airspace. 

In a statement, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada - the country’s foreign ministry - said that it had summoned China’s ambassador over the incident and will “vigorously express” its position to Chinese officials. Mr Blinken had been expected to visit China on 5 and 6 February.  A US official quoted by the Associated Press said that the decision to abruptly halt the trip was made by Mr Blinken and President Joe Biden. 

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Mr Biden did not take questions about the balloon following remarks about the US economy on Friday morning.  According to US officials, the balloon flew over Alaska and Canada before appearing in the US state of Montana, which is home to a number of sensitive military missile sites. 

By Friday morning, the balloon was moving east “over the centre of the continental US” at an altitude of about 60,000 feet (18,200m) according to Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder.  General Ryder added that US officials are monitoring the object and reviewing “options”. He said it poses no military or physical threat to people on the ground. Although fighter planes were alerted, the US decided not to shoot the object down due to the dangers of falling debris, officials said.

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