US secretary of state Antony Blinken has cancelled his weekend visit to China after the Pentagon said it discovered a Chinese spy balloon that has been flying over sensitive nuclear missile sites in the western state of Montana.
One person familiar with the plans said the top US diplomat would not travel to Beijing where he had been expected to meet Chinese president Xi Jinping. Blinken would have been the first Biden administration cabinet secretary to visit China and the first secretary of state to travel to the country in more than five years.
The about-face came after the Pentagon said Thursday that a Chinese spy balloon had entered US airspace this week and was flying over Montana, where one of the sensitive bases that house American nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles is located.
China on Friday rejected suggestions that it was a spy balloon, saying it is rather a “civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes” that deviated from its planned course because of winds and “limited self-steering capability”
“The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure,” it said in an unusual statement. The ministry added that China would continue communicating with the US and “properly handle this unexpected situation”.
American officials said China had previously flown spy balloons over the country but that this one spent more time overhead. The US said it had taken steps to ensure the balloon could not obtain sensitive military information. Canada separately said it was monitoring a “potential second incident” without providing any details.
Canada’s foreign ministry said it had summoned China’s ambassador to Ottawa to protest against the balloon and that it would “continue to vigorously express our position to Chinese officials through multiple channels”.
Blinken had been scheduled to depart later this weekend for a two-day visit. Some Republicans had called on the top US diplomat to cancel the visit. Mike Gallagher, the Republican head of the new House China committee, and Raja Krishnamoorthi, the panel’s top Democrat, slammed China over the incident, saying the Chinese Communist party “should not have on-demand access to American airspace”.
“Not only is this a violation of American sovereignty . . . but it also makes clear that the CCP’s recent diplomatic overtures do not represent a substantive change in policy,” the lawmakers said in a joint statement.
Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House foreign affairs committee, told the Financial Times that the US should remove the balloon from its airspace. He said US officials had acknowledged they monitored the balloon since it flew over the Aleutian Islands where “it could have easily been shot down over water”.
“Allowing it to remain over US soil not only threatens the privacy of every American, but it sends a powerfully dangerous message to the Chinese Communist party and our other adversaries that this type of aggressive incursion is somehow acceptable,” he said.
The discovery of the balloon has abruptly complicated an attempt by Washington and Beijing to stabilise their turbulent relationship. When US president Joe Biden met Chinese president Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali in November, the leaders agreed that the two military powers should attempt to set a floor under the relationship, which has sunk to its lowest level since the countries established diplomatic relations in 1979.
Biden had asked the Pentagon to provide military options regarding the balloon but the administration ultimately decided not to shoot it down because of the risk to people on the ground, as well as its assessment that the balloon did not provide China with intelligence that it could not glean from other means, including from low Earth orbit satellites.
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