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Blinken Tells China Its Spy Balloon Was ‘Irresponsible' After Canceling Beijing Trip

Stefani Reynolds | AP
  • U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will postpone his trip to Beijing due to a Chinese surveillance balloon flying over the United States.
  • China's Foreign Ministry said Friday that the balloon was a civilian weather balloon intended for scientific research that was blown off course.
  • The balloon is flying high enough, above 60,000 feet, so that it isn't a threat to civil aircraft, Pentagon officials said. It is expected to remain over U.S. airspace for a few more days.

WASHINGTON – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken indefinitely postponed what was to be an already tense trip to China on Friday, citing a Chinese reconnaissance balloon moving east across the United States that posed a threat to national security.

Blinken had been scheduled to depart for Beijing Friday night, on a trip that was intended to reinforce communication and cooperation between the two countries.

Instead, he told China's director of Central Foreign Affairs Office, Wang Yi, in a phone call Friday that the balloon was an "irresponsible act and a clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law that undermined the purpose of the trip," according to a readout of the discussion.

Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told NBC News the Defense Department was aware of reports of another balloon "transiting Latin America. We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon."

In the past year, Chinese President Xi Jinping has deepened tensions with the U.S. by forging closer alliances with Russian President Vladimir Putin and ratcheting up military aggression against Taiwan.

Blinken had planned meet with his Chinese counterpart, Minister of Foreign Affairs Qin Gang, and hoped to see Xi, as well.

China's Foreign Ministry said Friday that the balloon was a civilian weather airship intended for scientific research that was blown off course. It described the incident as a result of a "force majeure" for which it was not responsible.

This claim was summarily dismissed by U.S. officials. A senior Pentagon official told reporters Thursday night that the object was clearly a surveillance balloon that was flying over sensitive sites to collect intelligence.

"We have noted the PRC 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 is unacceptable that this has occurred," the official said.

The balloon is moving east at an altitude above 60,000 feet so it is not a threat to civil aircraft, Defense officials said.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the Pentagon were working closely "to support any needed US government response" to the balloon, the FAA said in a statement late Friday.

"The balloon does not currently pose a hazard to civil aviation. If that changes, the FAA is prepared to take action," the agency said.

On Friday afternoon, Kansas Sen. Roger Marshall, a Republican, reported that the balloon was flying over his home state.

Defense officials said the Pentagon considered shooting down the balloon earlier this week, but decided against it after briefing President Joe Biden. The decision was made in consultation with senior leaders, including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Biden concluded that the U.S. would not shoot down the balloon because debris from it could cause damage on the ground, Pentagon official said. Moreover, any information the balloon collects would have "limited additive value" compared with China's spy satellites.

"At this stage we are monitoring it and reviewing options," Pentagon spokesman U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters, adding officials expect the balloon will linger in U.S. airspace for a few days.

Pentagon spokesman U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon, Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, in Washington.
Alex Brandon | AP
Pentagon spokesman U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon, Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, in Washington.

Beijing's apparent provocation so close to Blinken's visit set off alarms on Capitol Hill.

"It's not coincidental that this is happening right before Blinken was supposed to visit Beijing," said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

"They do these sorts of things to humiliate the other side, project strength and send a message. I don't think this was coincidental. I think it was certainly tied to that," Rubio said Friday on radio talk show "The Mike Gallagher Show."

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who represents the state where the balloon was flying overhead Thursday, said he was in contact with Defense Department and intelligence officials over the matter. One of the nation's three nuclear missile silo fields is at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.

On Friday, Tester announced that he would hold a Senate hearing on the balloon, but did not say precisely when.

"I'm demanding answers from the Biden Administration. I will be pulling people before my committee to get real answers on how this happened, and how we can prevent it from ever happening again," he said in a statement announcing the hearing.

The Montana Democrat chairs the Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He is also widely viewed as one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the Senate up for reelection in 2024.

The spy balloon incident comes at a moment of high tension between the United States and China. Beijing's territorial expansion in the South China Sea and its aggressive effort to control Taiwan have long concerned U.S. officials, but recently their worries have grown more urgent.

On Thursday, Austin was in the Philippine capital of Manilla, where the two countries announced the Philippines would grant the United States expanded access to its military bases. The island nation is strategically located in the southeast corner of the South China Sea, approximately 750 miles from Taiwan.

Austin said expanding access for U.S. troops "was especially important as the People's Republic of China continues to advance its illegitimate claims in the West Philippine Sea," using the phrase designated by the Philippines to refer to parts of the South China Sea.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., requested a classified briefing for the so-called Gang of Eight, which is made up of the Republican and Democratic leaders of both the House and Senate, and the leaders from both parties of the Senate and House Intelligence committees. 

The Gang of Eight will receive this briefing next week, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. told NBC News late Friday.

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