Blinken scraps China trip, US says spy balloon ‘unacceptable’

Beijing claims the spy balloon is an “airship” being used for meteorological and other scientific research.” But Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder Ryder said, “we know that it's a surveillance balloon.”

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has decided to postpone his trip to China after a Chinese spy balloon was discovered over the continental United States this week, officials said Friday.

The top US diplomat was scheduled to visit Beijing and meet with his Chinese counterpart as well as Xi Jinping next week. He would have been the first secretary of state to visit China since 2018.

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After the Pentagon, on Thursday, revealed the Chinese spy balloon had been detected, Beijing claimed it was an “airship” being used for meteorological and other scientific research.”

Blinken had a call senior Chinese official Wang Yi, the State Department said. “The Secretary noted the [China’s] statement of regret but conveyed that this is an irresponsible act and a clear violation of US sovereignty and international law that undermined the purpose of the trip,” according to a readout of the call.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers quickly called on Blinken to cancel his trip.

A senior State Department official briefing reporters on the decision said Blinken was supposed to leave tonight. The official said that after consultations with interagency partners and Congress, it was concluded that the conditions were not right for Blinken to travel to China. “We believe in diplomacy to responsibly manage the most complex bilateral relationship we have,” said the official, who was speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official slammed the balloon incident as a “clear violation of our sovereignty” and “unacceptable.”

Nevertheless, the secretary still plans to travel to China at the earliest opportunity “when conditions allow,” the official said.

ABC News first reported that Blinken would cancel his trip. The unnamed official told ABC News that Blinken did not want the spy balloon to dominate his meetings with Chinese officials and did not want to blow the situation out of proportion by canceling the trip.

The Pentagon said the balloon is moving eastward and still over the center of the continental United States.

Asked for China’s claims that the balloon was for civilian purposes, Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder Ryder said Friday: “The fact is, we know that it’s a surveillance balloon.”

According to Ryder, the balloon is currently assessed to be at about 60,000 feet, which is above the range of civilian air traffic.

The Pentagon revealed Thursday that the balloon was spotted flying over the continental United States, but military commanders recommended against shooting it down.

“The balloon 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,” Ryder said at the time.

This is not the first time such balloon activity has been observed in the US, Ryder noted. But the US government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information, he said.

Speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, a senior US defense official Thursday revealed that military commanders and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said shooting down the balloon should be ruled out “due to the risk to safety and security of people on the ground from the possible debris field.”

The same official added: “We assess that this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective.”

The balloon was monitored while over Montana, home to one of the Air Force bases operating the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

The official said US fighter jets were deployed to examine the balloon earlier this week.

The official said this had happened several times over the last few years, including during the Trump administration. But the difference with this balloon is the altitude and the period of time it has lingered in the US.

Read more: China: Balloon in US airspace for research, expresses regret for straying into US

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