The Biden administration has postponed an official visit to China after a spy balloon was detected flying over the continental US, despite Beijing’s attempt to insist it was merely a weather monitoring device.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had been due to head there this weekend, but apparently did not want the satellite to dominate the first such high-level meetings between the two countries in six years.
“Under these conditions, it would not be constructive to travel at this time,” a senior US Department of State official told reporters.
“This is the first time this has happened on the eve of a planned Secretary of State visit to the PRC [People’s Republic of China]. This issue would have significantly narrowed the agenda of what we were able to discuss.”
On Friday, the first balloon was seen to have changed course, suggesting that someone in China was controlling it and it had not simply blown off course as Beijing claimed.
“We know this is a Chinese (surveillance) balloon and that it has the ability to maneuver,” Brigadier General Patrick Ryder, of the US Air Force, told a news briefing at the Pentagon, declining to say precisely how it was powered or who in China was controlling its flight path.
A senior defence official told reporters late on Thursday: “Clearly the intent of this balloon is for surveillance.”
The Chinese government has denied it was a spy device, instead claiming it was for civilian meteorological and other scientific purposes and had been accidentally blown off course.
Beijing apologised for the incident, saying it “regretted” that the balloon, reported to be about the size of three buses, had ended up there.
“We acknowledge China’s statement of regret,” the US Department of State official responded. “We also remain confident in our assessment of the situation.”
The Pentagon decided not to shoot down the balloon, despite having F-22 stealth fighters at the ready, amid concerns of casualties on the ground.
However, as it continued floating eastward towards the centre of the continental US on Friday, Joe Biden faced mounting criticism.
Donald Trump posted on his Truth Social platform: “SHOOT DOWN THE BALLOON!”
Mark Esper, a defence secretary under the former president, denounced what he called a “brazen act by the Chinese”.
He said: “My interest would be… bringing it down so that we can capture the equipment and understand exactly what they’re doing. It will tell us a lot about what they’re trying to do, what they’re trying to learn.”
Nikki Haley, the former Republican governor of South Carolina, who is expected to announce her 2024 presidential bid later this month, also called for aggressive action from the Biden administration:
Shoot down the balloon. Cancel Blinken’s trip. Hold China accountable.
Biden is letting China walk all over us. It’s time to make America strong again.
— Nikki Haley (@NikkiHaley) February 3, 2023
The GOP, who has always been keen to show Mr Biden as soft on China, portrayed the Chinese surveillance operation as a violation of US sovereignty.
To make their point that the Biden administration’s policies have not taken a hard enough line, Republican lawmakers in the House – now under their control – have promised more focus on China and a tougher US stance on issues from securing supply chains to investigating the origins of Covid-19.
The incident has further strained already tense relations between Beijing and Washington.
Mr Blinken would have been the highest-ranking member of the Biden administration to visit China, with the aim of the trip being to ease tensions amid trade disputes and its increasingly aggressive stance towards Taiwan.
Drew Thompson, a former Pentagon official who is now a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, suggested that the timing of the balloon flight was not coincidental.
He told The New York Times: “This balloon surveillance mission really demonstrates that even when Xi [Chinese President Jinping] is trying to improve the tone of the relationship and the rhetoric softens, there is no interest on Beijing’s part to act with restraint or amend its behaviour in ways that actually contribute to genuinely improving the condition of the relationship.”