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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken
Blinken's long-anticipated meetings with senior Chinese officials had been seen in both countries as a way to find some areas of common ground amid major disagreementsImage: Saul Loeb/AP/picture alliance
PoliticsUnited States of America

Blinken postpones China trip over suspected spy balloon

February 3, 2023

US President Joe Biden felt it was best not to proceed with the trip in a new blow to already strained US-Chinese relations. China said the balloon was used for meteorological research.


Blinken postpones China visit

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed a diplomatic visit to China after a high-altitude Chinese balloon was spotted over the US.

Blinken's abrupt decision on Friday came just hours before he had been due to depart Washington for Beijing.

Why did Blinken call off his trip to China?

The top US diplomat said the balloon created conditions that would undermine the purpose of visiting China, and that it was "even more irresponsible" for the incident to have happened on the eve of the trip.

A US official said Blinken and President Joe Biden determined it was best not to proceed with the trip at this time.

"We have noted the PRC (People's Republic of China) statement of regret, but the presence of this balloon in our airspace is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law, and it is unacceptable that this has occurred," a State Department official told reporters.

"After consultations with our interagency partners as well as with Congress, we have concluded that the conditions are not right at this moment for Secretary Blinken to travel to China," the official added.

The balloon has been flying over US skies for a few days now.

US defense officials said they believed the balloon was used "for surveillance." But China's foreign ministry said it was used for "mainly meteorological" purposes.

Pentagon: Surveillance balloon detected over US

Biden faces pressure over China policy

The decision to postpone Blinken's trip comes as Biden's administration weighs a broader response to the discovery of the balloon flying over sensitive sites.

The discovery of the balloon alarmed many in Washington, especially Republican members of Congress who have advocated taking a tougher stance with China.

Two Republican 2024 reelection challengers, former President Donald Trump, and Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and UN ambassador, said the US should immediately shoot down the balloon.

Blinken's two-day trip to Beijing would have been the first by a top US diplomat since October 2018.

Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed in November at a summit in Indonesia that Blinken would travel to Beijing. 

The US and China are at loggerheads over Taiwan, human rights, China's claims in the South China Sea, North Korea, Russia's war in Ukraine, trade policy and climate change.

But Blinken said on Friday that the US remains committed to diplomatic relations with China.

According to the State Department, Blinken had told the Chinese he would be prepared to travel to China "at the earliest opportunity when conditions allow.''

Military decides against shooting down balloon

The balloon flew over Alaska's Aleutian Islands and through Canada before appearing over the US state of Montana, which is home to one of three nuclear missile silo fields in the country.

Washington said it has been tracking the suspected spy balloon for a couple of days since it entered US airspace.

US military leaders considered shooting down the balloon with F-22 fighter jets but ultimately decided against it because of the potential safety risk posed by the debris, the official said.

The US has also assessed that it had only "limited'' value in terms of providing intelligence China couldn't obtain by other technologies, such as spy satellites.

Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder added the balloon was flying "at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground."

What did China say about the balloon?

In a statement on Friday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry described the balloon as a civilian airship used mainly for meteorological research. 

"The airship is from China and is civilian in nature, used for meteorological and other scientific research. Due to the influence of westerly winds and its limited control capability, the airship deviated from its intended course," it said.

"China regrets that the airship strayed into the United States by mistake due to force majeure. China will continue to maintain communication with the US side to properly handle this accident," it added. 

zc, lo/jcg, fb (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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