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Business News/ News / Antony Blinken postpones China trip over 'unacceptable' Chinese spy balloon
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Antony Blinken postpones China trip over 'unacceptable' Chinese spy balloon

China earlier expressed regret that what it called a ‘civilian airship had strayed into U.S. territory after being blown off course.’

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during an event with the South Korean foreign minister about the Chinese surveillance balloon identified in U.S. airspace February 3, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP (Photo by WIN MCNAMEE / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP) (Getty Images via AFP)Premium
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during an event with the South Korean foreign minister about the Chinese surveillance balloon identified in U.S. airspace February 3, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP (Photo by WIN MCNAMEE / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP) (Getty Images via AFP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a visit to China that had been expected to start on Friday after a suspected Chinese spy balloon was tracked flying across the United States in what Washington called a "clear violation" of U.S. sovereignty.

The Pentagon said on Thursday it was tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon over the continental United States. Officials said military leaders considered shooting it down over Montana on Wednesday but eventually recommended against this to President Joe Biden because of the safety risk from debris.

White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden was briefed on the balloon flight on Tuesday and there was an administration "consensus that it was not appropriate to travel to the People's Republic of China at this time."

China earlier expressed regret that what it called a "civilian airship had strayed into U.S. territory after being blown off course."

ALSO READ: Chinese spy balloon floating over the US: What we know so far

The administration was aware of China's statement "but the presence of this balloon in our airspace, it is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law. It is unacceptable this occurred," she told a regular briefing.

On Friday, Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said the balloon had changed course and was now floating eastward at about 60,000 feet (18,300 meters) above the central United States and demonstrating a capability to maneuver. He said it would likely be over the country for a few more days.

The Pentagon's disclosure about the balloon's maneuverability directly challenges China's assertion about the balloon being blown off course.

At a news conference with South Korea's visiting foreign minister later on Friday, Blinken said he had told Wang Yi, director of China's Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, that the incident on the eve of his trip was an "irresponsible act" by China, but Washington remained committed to engagement and he would visit when conditions allowed.

Blinken said he was not going to put a date on when he might go to China and the focus was on resolving the current incident. “The first step is ... getting the surveillance asset, out of our air space," he said, adding that the United States would continue to maintain open lines of communication with China.

The Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, said the balloon should never have been allowed in U.S. airspace and could have been shot down over water.

"I am calling on the Biden administration to quickly take steps to remove the Chinese spy balloon from U.S. airspace," he said in a statement. 

LOST OPPORTUNITY?

The postponing of Blinken's trip, which had been agreed to in November by Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, is a blow to those on both sides who saw it as an overdue opportunity to stabilize an increasingly fractious relationship. The last visit by a U.S. secretary of state was in 2017.

A White House official said the administration had briefed staff of the so-called Gang of 8, which brings together Republican and Democratic leaders from the Senate and House, on Thursday afternoon.

The official said such balloon surveillance activity had "been observed over the past several years, including in the prior administration – we have kept Congress briefed on this issue."

China is keen for a stable U.S. relationship so it can focus on its economy, battered by the now-abandoned zero-COVID policy and neglected by foreign investors alarmed by what they see as a return of state intervention in the market.

In recent months Chinese leader Xi has met with world leaders, seeking to re-establish ties and settle disagreements.

Daniel Russel, the top U.S. diplomat for Asia under then-President Barack Obama, said he did not see a strategic rationale for canceling the trip and stressed the importance of maintaining high-level engagement with China.

"In as much as the U.S. has much bigger fish to fry with the Chinese than a surveillance balloon, the Biden team may be inclined to pick up where they left off after a decent interval," Russel said.    Sino-U.S. relations have soured significantly in recent years, particularly following then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan in August, which prompted dramatic Chinese military drills near the self-ruled island.

LIMITED INTELLIGENCE VALUE

Ryder told reporters on Thursday the balloon was at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and did not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground. One U.S. official added that the balloon was assessed to have "limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective."

Another official said the flight path would carry the balloon over a number of sensitive sites, but did not give details. Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana is home to 150 intercontinental ballistic missile silos.

Ryder declined on Friday to specify where precisely the balloon was, but as he spoke, the National Weather Service in Kansas City said on Twitter it had received multiple reports across northwestern Missouri of a large balloon.

Such balloons typically operate at 80,000-120,000 feet (24,000-37,000 meters), well above where commercial air traffic flies. The highest-performing fighter aircraft typically do not operate above 65,000 feet, although spy planes such as the U-2 have a service ceiling of 80,000 feet or more.

China has often complained about surveillance by the United States, including its deployment of ships or planes near Chinese military exercises.

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This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.

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Published: 04 Feb 2023, 04:02 AM IST
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