Blinken’s China trip postponed after spy balloon detected over nuclear sites in Montana

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The Biden administration has decided to postpone Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s upcoming trip to Beijing after detecting a Chinese surveillance balloon that was lingering at high altitude over sensitive nuclear sites in Montana, according two officials.

Blinken was set to have meetings in Beijing early next week in the first such visit by a top U.S. diplomat in five years. But the presence of the balloon — which the Pentagon decided not to shoot down — led officials to decide that going now would send the wrong signal, according to people familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations.

White House and State Department officials didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

China took unusually conciliatory steps to smooth over the incident Friday, with the Foreign Ministry saying it was “regretful” that a civilian airship entered U.S. airspace because of forces beyond its control. It said the balloon was conducting climate research.

The balloon was first spotted earlier this week and had been loitering over Montana, home to intercontinental-ballistic-missile silos, a senior Defense Department official said Wednesday. The official said the balloon posed no intelligence threat and such incursions have happened before.

But the Pentagon’s announcement about the balloon on Thursday prompted an outcry from Republican lawmakers, with Representative Mike Gallagher, the chairman of a new House committee meant to highlight the Chinese threat, saying the presence of the balloon “makes clear that the CCP’s recent diplomatic overtures do not represent a substantive change in policy.”

Earlier in the day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning cautioned the U.S. against “hyping” the incident. “We have no intention to violate other countries’ sovereignty and airspace,” Mao told a briefing, adding that she hoped “the relevant parties will handle the matter in a cool-headed way.”

Blinken’s trip was set to be the most senior U.S. visit to China since 2018. For the Biden administration, it’s part of an effort to keep the China rivalry from getting worse. For leaders in Beijing, it’s meant to signal China’s emergence from post-coronavirus pandemic lockdown and a desire to reconnect with the rest of the world.

U.S. officials declined to answer several questions about the balloon, including the precise target of its surveillance, its size or other specifications. “It is currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground,” Brigadier General Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Thursday night.

The senior official said the U.S. had raised the balloon issue with China, and the Wall Street Journal reported that the State Department had summoned the Chinese charge d’affaires. Mao sidestepped questions about whether Blinken’s trip was happening, saying she had no information to provide.

Later Thursday, Canada’s defense department said it was tracking “a potential second incident,” without elaborating. The White House declined to comment on the Canadian statement.

It wasn’t the first time a spy balloon had been spotted over U.S. territory, although this one appeared to be staying longer than in past cases. The technology doesn’t offer China any intelligence-gathering capability beyond what its low-orbit satellites already provide, the U.S. official said.

The official declined to say why the U.S. believed the balloon belonged to China, saying only that U.S. had high confidence in the assessment. The Chinese have for decades complained about the U.S. surveillance by ships and spy planes near its territory, leading to occasional confrontations.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin convened a meeting of his top advisers while on a trip to the Philippines on Wednesday and informed President Joe Biden. The U.S. defense chief had been in the Philippines as part of a U.S. effort to rally allies and counter what officials believe is China’s increased assertiveness in the South China Sea and toward Taiwan.

Tensions between Washington and Beijing have been running high, with the Biden administration becoming more explicit about its willingness to defend Taiwan in the event of a conflict. Last week, an Air Force general told his staff he believed the U.S. and China would be at war by 2025. China, at the same time, has taken a softer tone, calling for an end to hostile rhetoric.

The Biden administration also briefed staff for the “Gang of Eight,” a group including the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, another official said.

Greg Falco, an aerospace expert at Johns Hopkins University, said spy balloons were no better than satellites at getting good imagery, but that it’s possible the Chinese “are using them to intercept” communications.

Source: Bloomberg News

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