Secretary of State Antony Blinken abruptly canceled a high-stakes Beijing trip aimed at easing U.S.-China tensions as the Chinese spy balloon moves east from central North America, according to the Associated Press.
These developments marked a new blow to already strained U.S.-Chinese relations, which have been in a downward spiral for years over numerous issues
U.S. officials maintained that diplomatic channels remain open and that Blinken was willing to travel to China at “an appropriate time.”
“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 told reporters, noting that Blinken was due to depart Friday night for Beijing.
“In this current environment, I think it would have significantly narrowed the agenda that we would have been able to address,” the official added.
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Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said Friday that the North American Aerospace Defense Command continues to monitor the Chinese spy balloon closely.
It continues to move eastward and is over the central part of the continental US, he added, “It’s as specific as I’m going to get.”
“Again, we currently assess that 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,” Ryder said. “The balloon is maneuverable and has violated U.S. airspace.”
When asked why the U.S. will not “take down” the balloon since it has violated U.S. airspace and broke international law, Ryder said, “This is a surveillance balloon – operating at about 60 thousand feet. Clearly, we did a very close assessment in terms of what it’s doing, and as I mentioned, military commanders have assessed that there is no physical or military threat to people on the ground.”
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The People’s Republic of China confirmed Friday that the balloon craft floating over the northern United States belongs to them.
“The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson confirmed Friday. “Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course.”
“The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure. The Chinese side will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure,” said the statement.
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The Department of Defense is tracking the high-altitude Chinese surveillance balloon that appears to be collecting data on sensitive U.S. sites, multiple defense officials said Thursday.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden was briefed regarding the surveillance balloon and requested military options, but Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, after convening a meeting of senior leadership Wednesday, recommended against shooting it down to protect the safety of people on the ground, a senior defense official told reporters.
“The United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is flying over the continental United States right now,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement on Thursday. “NORAD [North American Aerospace Defense Command] continues to track and monitor it closely.”
The balloon has a “limited value” to China for intelligence collection beyond the capabilities Beijing currently exercises but nevertheless presents concerns, officials said.
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“Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years. Once the balloon was detected, the U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information,” Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said.
The U.S. government and military continue to “track and monitor it closely,” Ryder said. “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.”
The balloon transited over Montana Wednesday. Montana houses Malmstrom Air Force Base, where U.S. Minuteman III nuclear missiles are stored, according to the base’s website.
Washington has communicated to Beijing “the seriousness with which we take this issue,” the senior defense official said.
The surveillance technology carried by the balloon is not “revolutionary” but still presents concerns, the official said.
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“I think the thing that is different is the altitude and, of course, the willingness that put it in the continental United States for an extended period of time,” the official said.
Similar instances have occurred a “few” times in recent years, including under both the Biden and Trump administrations, the official said.
Intelligence officials have attributed many unidentified flying objects to Chinese surveillance efforts. Beijing can spy on U.S. military bases to observe the training tactics of U.S. pilots using surveillance drones in the past, The New York Times previously reported, citing Pentagon officials familiar with the contents of the classified document.
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