Blinken postpones trip to China after balloon is detected over US

An undated photo of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
An undated photo of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. (File photo: NYTimes)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday postponed a trip to Beijing after a Chinese high-altitude balloon, described as a “intelligence-gathering” airship by the Pentagon and a stray civilian device by China, was detected floating over the US this week.اضافة اعلان

The postponement was confirmed by State Department officials, citing the balloon and speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues.

Blinken and a deputy spoke with the Chinese Embassy on Wednesday night, and 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,” according to a State Department official.

There is no new date for Blinken’s trip to Beijing, the official added.

Beijing had sought to defuse tensions with Washington on Friday over the balloon, expressing its regret over the incident and saying the balloon was for civilian research and had “deviated far from its planned course.”

The explanation from the Chinese Foreign Ministry came after Pentagon officials said Thursday that they had detected a balloon, “most certainly launched by the People’s Republic of China,” over Montana, which is home to about 150 intercontinental ballistic missile silos.

After initially telling a news conference that it had to check on the claims about the balloon, the ministry said late Friday in Beijing that the balloon’s course was an innocent mistake.

Force majeure“The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes,” an unidentified spokesperson for the ministry said in a statement on its website. “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.”

“Force majeure” refers to a violation caused by forces beyond a party’s control.

Neither side has suggested that Beijing communicated with Washington about the balloon before the controversy broke out Thursday. But China said in its statement Friday that it would now talk with US officials about how to “properly handle this unexpected situation.”

State Department officials noted China’s explanation of the balloon, but one senior official said the incident would have narrowed the talks that Blinken and the other American and Chinese diplomats had planned to hold.

‘Unacceptable and irresponsible’Another State Department official said the US made clear to Chinese officials that this was an “unacceptable and irresponsible incident.” The balloon was still over the US on Friday, officials said.

While the Pentagon played down the potential value of the balloon for acquiring intelligence, the initial public reaction by Biden administration officials had underscored how brittle and delicate relations with Beijing have become, even over one balloon.

The defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, held a meeting about the balloon with senior US defense officials while he was in the Philippines, and President Joe Biden “was briefed and asked for military options,” a Pentagon official told reporters.

China appeared eager to avoid letting the balloon become a festering irritant during Blinken’s planned two-day visit to Beijing, which had been scheduled to begin Sunday. Speaking before China’s statement was issued, Drew Thompson, a former Pentagon official who is now a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said the timing of the balloon flight was at least maladroit.

China is also smarting over the US’ announcement Thursday that it would expand its military presence in the Philippines, gaining access to four more sites that potentially could be used to marshal forces to deter or respond to Chinese military threats to Taiwan.

“This balloon surveillance mission really demonstrates that even when Xi is trying to improve the tone of the relationship and the rhetoric softens,” Thompson said of China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, “there is no interest on Beijing’s part to act with restraint or amend its behavior in ways that actually contribute to genuinely improving the condition of the relationship.”

After the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued its explanation, Thompson said: “I don’t think the statement changes the facts or the violation of US airspace. At best, it is irresponsible.”

China’s Ministry of National Defense, which usually comments on military issues, did not comment.

“China is a responsible country, always strictly abides by international law, and has no intention of violating any sovereign country’s territory or airspace,” Mao Ning, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, told a regular news briefing Friday afternoon.

But she said then that the authorities needed to check the reports.

The Global Times, a Communist Party-run newspaper that has become a vehicle for pugnacious, sometimes quasi-official reactions from Beijing, suggested that the balloon reports were in line with what it called US efforts to “create a Cold War atmosphere and exacerbate China-US tensions.”

‘Brazen disregard’Plans for Blinken’s trip to Beijing firmed up in November, when Biden and Xi met in Bali and agreed to try to rein in tensions. Volatile strains have built up over Taiwan; technological barriers and bans; human rights issues in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and resulting American sanctions on Chinese officials; and, most broadly, over a growing military rivalry across Asia and the Pacific.

Blinken would be the first US secretary of state to visit Beijing in over four years. After the balloon news broke, a chorus of Republican politicians in Washington urged the Biden administration to take a tougher approach to China.

“China’s brazen disregard for US sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed, and President Biden cannot be silent,” Speaker Kevin McCarthy said in a statement on Twitter.

McCarthy has said that as speaker he plans to visit Taiwan — the democratically ruled island that Beijing claims as its territory — which could prompt China to hold another round of intimidating military maneuvers near the island, similar to the ones it held last year when McCarthy’s predecessor, Nancy Pelosi, visited Taiwan.

Pentagon officials have refused to disclose many details about the balloon, including its size and features, making it harder for outside experts to assess its intent and value.

“We did assess that it was large enough to cause damage from the debris field if we downed it over an area,” a senior Department of Defense official told reporters.

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