US Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a visit to China that had been expected to start yesterday after a Chinese spy balloon was tracked flying across the United States in what US officials called a “clear violation” of US 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.
Yesterday, Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said the balloon had changed course and was now floating eastward at about 18,300 metres above the central part of country. He said it would likely be over the United States for a few more days.
The incident sparked a political furore in the United States, and China yesterday expressed regret that a “civilian” airship had strayed into US airspace after being blown off course.
A senior State Department official told reporters Mr Blinken had nevertheless decided to postpone his trip.
“We have noted the PRC (People’s Republic of China) statement, but the presence of this balloon in our airspace is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law,” the official said.
The official added that Mr Blinken had indicated to Wang Yi, director of China’s Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, that he plans to travel to the PRC “at the earliest opportunity when conditions allow”.
ABC News cited a US official as saying Mr Blinken did not want to blow the situation out of proportion by cancelling his visit, but also did not want the incident to dominate his meetings with Chinese officials.
Republican Senator Tom Cotton had called for Mr Blinken to cancel his trip, while Republican former President Donald Trump, a declared presidential candidate for 2024, posted “SHOOT DOWN THE BALLOON!” on his Truth Social platform.
Postponement of Mr Blinken’s trip, which was agreed to in November by Mr Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, is a blow to those on both sides who saw it as an overdue opportunity to stabilise an increasingly fractious relationship. The last visit by a US secretary of state was in 2017.
Mr Biden ignored questions about the balloon when giving remarks on the economy yesterday morning.
China is keen for a stable US 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 Mr Xi has met with world leaders, seeking to re-establish ties with other nations.
Daniel Russel, the top US diplomat for Asia under then-President Barack Obama, said he did not see a strategic rationale for axing the trip.
Sino-US relations have soured significantly in recent years, particularly following then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August, which prompted dramatic Chinese military drills near the self-ruled island.
Brig Gen 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 US official added that the balloon was assessed to have “limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective.”
The US also uses military spy satellites to monitor China’s military buildup, but Taylor Fravel, an expert on China’s military at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he was not aware of any Chinese allegations that US surveillance flights have violated Chinese airspace in recent years.