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US halts Blinken China visit after spy balloon row

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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.

The incident ultimately starkly highlighted the roiling tensions that the visit sought to address, with China’s expression of regret not enough to dispel the administration’s need to respond to the spying suspicions.

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”.

Image source, Getty Images

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.

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.

However, the state department official said that while the US acknowledged China’s claim about the balloon’s purpose, it stood by 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 White House spokesperson said that US President Joe Biden agreed with Mr Blinken’s decision and that there was “consensus” that it was “not appropriate” to go to China at this time.

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.

Kansas Senator Roger Marshall said on Twitter that the balloon was over the north-east part of his state early on Friday afternoon.

General Ryder added that US officials are monitoring the object and reviewing “options”. He said the balloon – which he described as “manoeuvrable” – 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.

Graphic of high altitude balloon, showing helium filled balloon, solar panels and instruments bay which can include cameras, radar and communications equipment. They can fly at heights of 80,000ft-120,000ft, higher than fighter jets and commercial aircraft

The incident has also revealed as much about domestic politics as it did about as geopolitical rivalries, with Mr Biden’s political opponents leading the charge in demanding action against China.

Several Republican lawmakers – as well as former President Donald Trump – have criticised the decision and urged the US to down the balloon.

“Shoot down the balloon,” Mr Trump said in a short message on his Truth Social social media platform.

On Twitter, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said that the balloon incident was “a destabilizing action that must be addressed”.

As the situation continues, the Biden administration must now contend with China “hawks” on both sides of the political spectrum.

Montana Democratic Senator Jon Tester, for example, said in a statement that he is “still waiting on real answers” about how the “unacceptable” incident happened.

“I will hold everyone accountable until I get them,” the statement said.

While US officials have not commented on the size and details of the suspected spy balloon, Chinese officials have previously publicly expressed interest in the potential military and intelligence-gathering potential of balloons.

“Technological advances have opened a new door for the use of balloons,” an article in the military-run Liberation Army Daily said last year.

In 2022, Taiwan’s defence ministry said it detected Chinese balloons over its territory.

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