A huge, high-altitude Chinese balloon sailed across the U.S. on Friday, drawing severe Pentagon accusations of spying despite China’s firm denials.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken abruptly cancelled a high-stakes Beijing trip aimed at easing U..S.-China tensions.
Fuzzy videos dotted social media sites as people with binoculars and telephoto lenses tried to find the “spy balloon” in the sky as it headed eastward over Kansas and Missouri at 18,300 metres.
Blinken’s cancelation came despite China’s claim that the balloon was merely a weather research “airship” that had blown off course.
The Pentagon rejected that out of hand — as well as China’s contention that the balloon, about the size of two school buses, was not being used for surveillance and had only limited navigational ability.
“In light of China’s unacceptable action, I am postponing my planned travel to China this weekend,” Blinken said. He had been due to depart Washington for Beijing late Friday.
He said he had told senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in a phone call that sending the balloon over the U.S. was “an irresponsible act and that [China’s] decision to take this action on the eve of my visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have.”
The balloon was detected over sensitive military sites in Montana but had moved eastward over the heartland of the central United States during the day and was expected to remain in U.S. airspace for several days, officials said.
The development marked a new blow to already strained U.S.-Chinese relations that have been in a downward spiral for years over numerous issues.
Still, U.S. officials maintained that diplomatic channels remain open and Blinken said he remained willing to travel to China “when conditions allow.”
Canada summons ambassador
Chinese Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu was summoned by Global Affairs Canada officials on Thursday amid the controversy, according to department spokesperson Charlotte MacLeod.
“We will continue to vigorously express our position to Chinese officials through multiple channels,” MacLeod said in a statement on Friday.
Canada’s Department of National Defence said the balloon’s movements were being actively tracked by the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD), which is responsible for monitoring airborne threats to the continent.
Officials have not said whether the surveillance balloon flew over Canadian airspace, and Defence Minister Anita Anand’s office declined comment.
However, the Defence Department said in its statement that Canadian intelligence agencies were working with American counterparts.
No comment from Biden
U.S. President Joe Biden declined to comment on the matter when questioned at an economic event.
Two likely 2024 re-election challengers, former president Donald Trump, and Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and UN ambassador, said the U.S. should immediately shoot down the balloon.
Biden was first briefed about the Chinese surveillance balloon on Tuesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters. She did not shed light on why the administration waited until Thursday to make its concerns public.
A senior defence official said the U.S. had prepared fighter jets, including F-22s, to shoot the balloon down if ordered.
The Pentagon ultimately recommended against that, noting that even as the balloon was over a sparsely populated area of Montana, its size could create a debris field large enough to put people at risk.
U.S. Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, refused to say on Friday whether there was any new consideration of shooting the balloon down.
No threat at present: Pentagon
Ryder said it was at an altitude of about 60,000 feet, was manoeuvrable and had changed course. He said it currently was posing no threat.
As for Blinken’s trip, Jean-Pierre said a diplomatic visit to China was not appropriate at this time.
She said “the presence of this balloon in our airspace … is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law and it is unacceptable this occurred.”
A U.S. State Department official said Blinken and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman had both protested to the top official at the Chinese Embassy on Wednesday, a day before the Pentagon announced the discovery of the balloon.
Pentagon officials said Thursday that one of the places it was spotted was over Montana, which is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
A number of Republican lawmakers have criticized the administration for not taking firmer action against China before this. And a decision for Blinken to proceed with his trip could have made Biden even more susceptible to their complaints at a time he’s starting to deal with the new Republican-led U.S. House.
Weather experts said China’s claim that the balloon had gone off course was not unfeasible.
China, which angrily denounces surveillance attempts by the U.S. and others over areas it considers to be its territory and once forced down an American spy plane and held its crew captive on Hainan Island, was relatively conciliatory in its response to the U.S. complaints.
In a statement that approached an apology, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the balloon was a civilian airship used mainly for meteorological research. It said said the airship had limited “self-steering” capabilities and had “deviated far from its planned course” because of winds.
“The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure,” the statement said, citing a legal term used to refer to events beyond one’s control.
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