Washington: America’s top diplomat has shelved his first official trip to China after a suspected Chinese spy balloon was detected flying over the US, in a move the Biden administration described as “unacceptable.”
Hours before he was scheduled to depart for Beijing in a visit aimed at easing US-China tensions, Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed his trip after the Pentagon detected an “intelligence-gathering balloon, most certainly launched by the People’s Republic of China” floating over the country.
The high-altitude balloon floats over Billings, Montana.Credit:AP
The discovery alarmed US officials and prompted widespread calls to immediately shoot the balloon down, including from former US president Donald Trump and senior congress members.
Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles, who was in Washington on Friday (US time) to discuss the AUKUS pact with US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, also weighed in, noting that the matter had raised “a lot of questions” and “we’ll await those answers from China.”
China had insisted that the balloon was not being used for surveillance, claiming it was simply a weather research “airship” that had blown off course.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi earlier this year.Credit:AP
“It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes,” a Chinese ministry spokesperson said in a statement.
“Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure.”
However, the US has rejected this explanation, noting that the balloon had been floating over sensitive military sites in Montana, a western US state that has about 150 intercontinental ballistic missile silos, before moving eastward over central US.
In a briefing at the Pentagon on Friday (US time) Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said the government had been tracking the balloon for several days, adding it was “travelling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.”
It is understood the officials warned Biden against shooting it out of the sky amid safety concerns.
“We assess that it does not pose a risk to people on the ground as it currently is traversing the continental United States. And so, out of an abundance of caution, cognisant of the potential impact to civilians on the ground from a debris field, right now, we’re going to continue to monitor and review options,” Ryder said.
However, Republican Congressman Mike Gallagher, who chairs the Select Committee on China in the US Congress, accused the Biden administration of being soft.
In view of the fact that the balloon had been detected days ago, he added that it was “embarrassing and unfathomable” that the balloon had not been shot down sooner.
“This is not the last such incident we’re going to see from the Chinese Communist Party,” he said.
“They’re testing us. They’re mocking us. They’re trying to embarrass us and of course they’re trying to collect as much sensitive intelligence as possible from us. So, the responses I’ve seen thus far from the administration raise more questions than they answer.”
Blinken’s trip was meant to be a significant diplomatic moment, designed to follow up on President Joe Biden’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping last year.
However, on Friday morning, Blinken told China’s top foreign policy official Wang Yi that the balloon’s course was a violation of sovereignty and “unacceptable”.
While Blinken is open to rescheduling his visit “an appropriate time,” the discovery of the balloon nonetheless risks straining what was already a difficult US-Chinese relationship.
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