The U.S. cancelled Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s long-planned trip to China over a Chinese ‘spy’ balloon that the State Department called a ‘clear violation’ of U.S. sovereignty.
Although U.S. diplomats noted a rare statement of regret from China, the U.S. determined that Blinken’s trip could not be ‘productive’ under the circumstances, with the spy balloon still traveling over U.S. airspace at 60,000 feet under monitoring by the U.S. military.
The decision puts on hold Blinken’s planned visit, which was to feature a landmark meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, on a trip President Biden and Xi announced the visit during their own high-stakes summit meeting in Bali in November.
‘We do acknowledge, we note the PRC statement of regret,’ a senior State Department said Friday when announcing the decision. ‘But again, the presence of this balloon in our airspace is clearly unacceptable and a clear violation of our sovereignty. And our clear assessment was that under these current conditions, it wouldn’t be constructive to visit Beijing at this time.’
Deflating: Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Beijing of his decision to postpone his trip to China Friday morning in what the State Department called a clear violation of U.S. ‘sovreignty’
Blinken ‘postponed’ his planned trip ‘following the detection of a suspected spy balloon over the United States, which Beijing has claimed is a civilian airship which blew off course.’
Notably, the official would not state when pressed by reporters whether the U.S. believed Beijing’s excuse.
ABC News had reported Blinken didn’t want to blow up the situation with the cancellation, while not wanting it to dominate his agenda while there.
But ‘in this current environment it would have significantly narrowed the agenda that we would have been able to address,’ the senior official said.
The trip was postponed on Friday morning after the balloon was detected earlier this week and monitored flying worryingly close to sensitive nuclear sites in Montana.
‘We know that it’s a surveillance balloon,’ Air Force Brig Gen. Gen Ryder told reporters Friday. He said it was flying at 60,000 feet and posed no risk to Americans, but would not provide exact location information as it made its way across the continental U.S., moving eastward from Montana.
While the military tracked the balloon, U.S. diplomats raised the matter with top Chinese diplomats in Washington and Beijing, while contacting allies as well.
‘Once the balloon was detected, the US government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information. We’ve directly communicated with the PRC government through multiple levels about this Issue,’ said the official.
Blinken told China’s ministry of Foreign Affairs of his decision Friday morning, and his apparent government jet was spotted at Joint Base Andrews late Friday morning, in a sign of the sudden cancellation.
But given the high stakes with Taiwan, North Korea, and other issues on the table, the U.S. says the cancellation is temporary.
‘After consultations with our interagency partners, as well as with Congress, we have concluded that the conditions are not right at this moment for Secretary Blinken to travel to China,’ said the official. ‘We believe in diplomacy to responsibly manage the most complex bilateral relationship we have. We are committed to maintaining open lines with the PRC at all times, including during this incident.’
‘I’m confident that our channels of communication will remain as important as ever and those channels to remain open,’ the official added.
China’s foreign ministry said the balloon ‘seriously deviated from the scheduled route’ and expressed regret that ‘the airship strayed into the United States due to force majeure’ and claimed it was used for scientific research ‘such as meteorology’ – something Pentagon disputed.
The detection of the balloon, which triggered alarm in the White House and the Pentagon, adds to a series of recent controversies that have further strained the tense relationship between China and the United States.
Beijing had urged calm while it established the ‘facts’ before a statement on Friday morning said the balloon was a weather research device that had ‘deviated far from its planned course’.
The Chinese foreign ministry said it regretted that the balloon had mistakenly entered US airspace. Republican leaders and former President Donald Trump had led calls for the balloon to be show down.
A US defense official said the balloon is the size of several buses – but doesn’t post an immediate threat to Americans. The balloon, pictured over Montana, has been tracked for several days but officials decided not to shoot it down over fears about debris. China claims it is a civilian airship used for meteorological research
The balloon – which is as large as three buses – was detected earlier this week and recently entered airspace in Montana, triggering fears it could be monitoring nuclear sites there.
China further blamed the balloon’s entry into US airspace on its limited steering capability. Independent modeling suggested the balloon would be over southeast Missouri by Saturday.
A statement added: ‘The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure,’ citing a legal term used to refer to events beyond one’s control.
The US is yet to respond to China’s claim about the balloon’s provenance but the cancellation of the Blinken visit indicates the White House’s anger over the debacle.
Officials in the US said it was ‘confident’ of preserving communications with China and that the visit would be rescheduled once conditions are ‘right’.
The fiasco is yet another escalation of the tensions between the United States and China. CIA director William Burns said on Thursday that President Xi had ordered the Chinese military to be prepared for an invasion of Taiwan by 2027.
Burns’ comments followed calls from senators for TikTok to be removed from Apple and Google’s app stores over fears the hugely-popular Chinese-owned app posed a threat to national security.
Republican senators had called on Blinken to cancel the trip, which was agreed by Biden and President Xi.
Montana Senator Steve Daines feared the Chinese balloon floating above the state was targeting nuclear missile fields installed there.
US officials said they have taken ‘custody’ of the balloon. They are thought to believe it has ‘limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective’.
A model of the path the balloon is thought to have taken, created by meteorologist Dan Satterfield, showed it originated in central China
The balloon flew over the Aleutian Islands in the northern Pacific Ocean, and then crossed Canadian airspace into the United States. Canada is monitoring a ‘potential second incident’
Why would China launch a ‘spy balloon’ over Montana? Beijing suspected of delving into the ‘Cold War playbook’
The detection of the suspected Chinese spy balloon over the United States triggered speculation that Beijing was mounting a concerted surveillance effort near sensitive military sites.
China has claimed the balloon is a civilian airship that blew off course, but analysts have said the balloon could be a Cold War-era espionage technique deployed in US airspace.
Balloons have been used as a spying technique – including by the US – since the 1950s. But technological advancements mean modern models are smaller, harder to detect and have much greater surveillance capabilities.
The balloon currently floating over the US is about the size of three buses. It is believed to have flown over the Aleutian Islands in the northern Pacific Ocean, and then crossed Canadian airspace into the United States.
One model suggests it’s likely to drift further into the Midwest and over Missouri by Saturday, but the nature of the device and changing weather makes an accurate prediction difficult.
The balloon is large enough that destroying it would rain down debris, risking the safety of people on the ground, US officials said.
The balloon’s path takes it over ‘a number of sensitive sites’, a senior Pentagon official said when asked about the presence of nuclear missile silos in Montana.
‘Clearly, they’re trying to fly… this balloon over sensitive sites… to collect information,’ the official added.
However, the balloon’s tech is not ‘revolutionary’ and its observations are not better than what China is capable of seeing through other means such as its spy satellites.
China’s claim that the balloon is a civilian weather-monitoring device are not totally baseless. Such balloons, which can appear similar to a surveillance device, are common tools for meteorological research.
China has sent such balloons over the United States in recent years, the senior Pentagon official said.
The official did not share details, but indicated the flights were detected as far back as the administration of the previous president Donald Trump.
However, the official added, this is the first time a Chinese balloon has stayed in US airspace for an extended period.
Canada was also monitoring a ‘potential second incident’ on Friday as officials worked to determine whether a separate sighting was the same balloon.
In a statement on Thursday, the Canadian government said: ‘A high-altitude surveillance balloon was detected and its movements are being actively tracked by North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).
‘Canadians are safe and Canada is taking steps to ensure the security of its airspace, including the monitoring of a potential second incident.’
Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who served under Trump, accused China of a ‘brazen act’.
He told CNN the US should ‘[bring] it down so that we can capture the equipment and understand exactly what they are doing. Are they taking pictures? Are they intercepting signals?’
‘Failing that I would definitely shoot it down, provided that there’s no risk to people on the ground.’
Esper said it was a matter of ‘great concern’ that the balloon was flying close to missile fields and strategic bomber bases.
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, said the balloon was alarming but not surprising.
‘The level of espionage aimed at our country by Beijing has grown dramatically more intense & brazen over the last 5 years,’ Rubio said on Twitter.
Arkansas’ Republican Senator, Tom Cotton, said: ‘President Biden should stop coddling and appeasing the Chinese communists. Bring the balloon down now and exploit its tech package, which could be an intelligence bonanza.
‘And President Biden and Secretary Austin need to answer if this balloon was detected over Alaskan airspace. If so, why didn’t we bring it down there? If not, why not?
‘As usual, the Chinese Communists’ provocations have been met with weakness and hand-wringing.’
The discovery has put the militaries and intelligence services of the United States and Canada on alert.
F-22 fight jets were mobilized to track the device as it oved over Montana, which borders Canada, on Wednesday.
A US defense official said it entered US airspace ‘a couple days ago’ but its exact location has not been shared.
The balloon flew over the vast state of Montana, which borders Canada, and at an altitude well above commercial air traffic.
Before that, it’s path was tracked over the Aleutian Islands in the northern Pacific Ocean, then over Canadian airspace into the United States.
A US official said the balloon was as large as three buses.
‘There have been reports of pilots seeing this thing, even though it’s pretty high up in the sky,’ the official added.
‘So, you know, it’s sizeable.’
The balloon is large enough that destroying it would rain down debris, risking the safety of people on the ground, US officials said, adding: ‘Does it pose a threat to civilian aviation? Our assessment is it does not. Does it pose a significantly enhanced threat on the intelligence side? Our best assessment right now is that it does not.’
China is thought to be flying a surveillance balloon over the United States, and Joe Biden (left) wanted to shoot it down. Pictured right is President Xi Jinping
CIA Director William Burns pictured on Thursday at Washington’s Georgetown University, where he called China the ‘biggest geopolitical challenge’ facing the United States
China’s President Xi Jinping has ordered his military to be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027, the director of the CIA has warned. Pictured: Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers during military training at Pamir Mountains in Kashgar, northwestern China’s Xinjiang region
Pictured: A map showing China’s likely tactics when it comes to an invasion of Taiwan
The balloon situation is the latest strain on America’s relationship with China. Senators also called this week for Apple and Google to ban the Chinese-owned TikTok app from its stores over national security fears
The news initially broke as CIA Director William Burns was speaking at an event at Washington’s Georgetown University, where he called China the ‘biggest geopolitical challenge’ facing the United States.
Elaborating on China’s readiness for an invasion of Taiwan, Burns added: ‘Now, that does not mean that he’s decided to conduct an invasion in 2027, or any other year, but it’s a reminder of the seriousness of his focus and his ambition.
‘Our assessment at CIA is that I wouldn’t underestimate President Xi’s ambitions with regard to Taiwan,’ he said, adding that the Chinese leader was likely ‘surprised and unsettled’ and trying to draw lessons by the ‘very poor performance’ of the Russian military and its weapons systems in Ukraine.
Russia and China signed a ‘no limits’ partnership last February shortly before Russian forces invaded Ukraine, and their economic links have boomed as Russia’s connections with the West have shriveled.
The Russian invasion had fueled concerns in the West of China possibly making a similar move on Taiwan, a democratic island Beijing says is its territory.
China has refrained from condemning Russia’s operation against Ukraine, but it has been careful not to provide the sort of direct material support which could provoke Western sanctions like those imposed on Moscow.
‘I think it’s a mistake to underestimate the mutual commitment to that partnership, but it’s not a friendship totally without limits,’ Burns said.