Washington, DC – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed a visit to China, calling the presence of an alleged Chinese spy balloon in United States airspace an “unacceptable” violation of the country’s sovereignty.
The balloon incident “undermined” the purpose of the trip, which was set to start on Sunday, Blinken told reporters on Friday afternoon.
“It’s very important to emphasise that the presence of this surveillance balloon over the United States, in our skies, is a clear violation of our sovereignty, a clear violation of international law and clearly unacceptable,” he said.
China has expressed regret for the balloon entering US airspace, describing it as a civilian airship used for meteorological research that “deviated far from its planned course” because of its “limited self-steering capability”.
US officials say it is a “high-altitude surveillance balloon”.
China’s foreign ministry issued a statement on Saturday saying the flight of a Chinese “airship” over the US was a force majeure accident and accused US politicians and media of taking advantage of the situation to discredit Beijing.
“China has always strictly abided by international law and respected the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries,” the ministry said in a statement.
The ministry also said Beijing and Washington had not announced any visit by Blinken and that “the US announcements are their own matter and we respect that”.
The Chinese statement was issued as the Pentagon said another Chinese balloon had been seen over Latin America, without giving an exact location.
“We are seeing reports of a balloon transiting Latin America. We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Pentagon spokesperson Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said.
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Lines of communication
A US State Department official stressed earlier on Friday that while Blinken’s trip was postponed, lines of communication remained open between Washington and Beijing as they seek to “responsibly manage” intensifying competition between the two countries.
“Our clear assessment was that under these current conditions, it wouldn’t be constructive to visit Beijing at this time, but I’ll also reiterate that this is a postponement and the secretary [Blinken] plans to travel at the earliest appropriate opportunity when conditions allow,” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
Blinken later said Washington was engaged with Beijing to resolve the “ongoing” issue.
“The first step is getting the surveillance asset out of our space. And that’s what we’re focused on,” he said.
China’s foreign ministry said in a separate statement that Wang Yi, director of China’s Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, had spoken to Blinken over the phone on Friday evening and discussed how to deal with accidental incidents in a calm and professional manner.
Wang told Blinken that both parties needed to communicate in a timely manner and avoid any misjudgments, the ministry said.
The State Department also said Blinken held a phone call with Wang Yi to address the situation. “The secretary explained that in light of this ongoing issue, it would not be appropriate to visit Beijing at this time,” the department said in a statement.
Ties between Beijing and Washington have soured over numerous points of tension in recent years, including trade issues, the status of Taiwan, China’s claims in the South China Sea and an ongoing US push against growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific.
The US has also been warning China against coming to Russia’s aid in Ukraine.
Blinken’s now-postponed trip was aimed at mitigating some of those tensions. It would have been the first visit by a US secretary of state to China since 2018, when then-top diplomat Mike Pompeo travelled to Beijing and met his counterpart, but not President Xi Jinping.
US President Joe Biden met Xi on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, in late 2022.
Both Chinese and US officials have stressed they do not seek confrontation, warning against turning the competition into a new Cold War.
Reporting from the White House, Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett said the balloon controversy would have overshadowed Blinken’s trip to China. “There are already a lot of big issues to be discussed between these two nations … This would be overarching over all of them,” she said.
The balloon was first observed over the northern US state of Montana on Thursday. But the Pentagon said on Friday that it is now “over the centre of the continental United States” without specifying over which state exactly.
“We currently assess that the balloon does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground at this time, and we’ll continue to monitor and review options,” the Pentagon’s Patrick Ryder told reporters.
He added that the balloon was flying well above civilian air traffic.
Ryder also dismissed the Chinese explanation that the balloon was a civilian aircraft for research. “The fact is, we know that it’s a surveillance balloon,” he said.
US politicians react
US Senator Roger Marshall, who represents Kansas, said on Friday that the balloon was over the northeastern part of the state.
“I condemn any attempts the Chinese make to spy on Americans. President Biden must protect the sovereignty of the US whether it’s our airspace or the southern border,” Marshall wrote on Twitter.
Several Republican members of the US Congress demanded answers and action from the Biden administration over the incident.
Republican Senator Josh Hawley called for a congressional hearing on the balloon, describing it as a “major domestic security threat”.
Congressman Scott Fitzgerald welcomed Blinken’s decision to postpone his trip but said “the administration must do much more to tell China that espionage will not be tolerated against the United States”.
Other legislators called on the Pentagon to bring down the balloon.
“Why won’t Biden shoot down the Chinese spy balloon that is currently flying over the United States? The Chinese Communist Party is a threat to our existence,” Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn wrote on Twitter.
The Homeland Security Committee needs to have public hearings NOW on the Chinese spy balloon – how did Biden let this happen? Major domestic security threat
— Josh Hawley (@HawleyMO) February 3, 2023
US defence officials have said that debris from the aircraft could pose a threat to civilians on the ground if they were to shoot it down.
Democratic Senator Jon Tester, who represents Montana, called the balloon a “completely unacceptable” provocation.
“We are still waiting for real answers on how this happened and what steps the Administration took to protect our country, and I will hold everyone accountable until I get them,” Tester said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Canada, which borders Montana and has frosty relations with China, said it summoned the Chinese ambassador on Thursday over the incident.
“We will continue to vigorously express our position to Chinese officials through multiple channels,” the Canadian foreign ministry told Al Jazeera in an email.
Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Melanie Joly said she discussed the security of the country’s airspace with Blinken on Friday.
“We are collaborating with our American partners and continue to take all necessary measures to safeguard Canada’s sensitive information,” Joly said in a tweet.