A day after the U.S. cancelled the much-anticipated visit of its top diplomat to China over a Chinese “spy balloon”, the two sides exchanged sharp remarks over the incident, the latest flashpoint in already tense relations.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, due to arrive in Beijing on Monday, described the presence of what he called a “high altitude surveillance balloon” in American skies as an “unacceptable action” and said he had spoken with top Chinese diplomat and Politburo member Wang Yi to convey he was “postponing” his travel in light of the incident.
Mr. Wang, in Friday’s phone call, said Beijing, which previously described the balloon as intended for meteorological use and expressed “regret” that it had deviated from its planned course, will “not accept any groundless conjecture or hype”.
“In the face of unexpected situations, what both sides should do is to maintain steadiness, communicate in time, avoid misjudgement and manage differences,” said Mr. Wang, who is also Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, according to a Foreign Ministry statement.
Mr. Blinken said he had, in the phone call, “made clear that the presence of this surveillance balloon in U.S. airspace is a clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law, that it’s an irresponsible act, and that the PRC’s decision to take this action on the eve of my planned visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have.”
The Department of Defence, he added, was continuing to track and monitor “a high-altitude surveillance balloon that remains over the continental United States.” The U.S. government on Friday said it had also observed a second surveillance balloon in skies over Latin America.
Reports in the U.S. said a decision to shoot down the balloon, which was floating over Montana this week and drifting towards the east coast of the U.S., was considered by President Joe Biden but ultimately shelved because of concerns over damage from debris.
“We’re confident this is a Chinese surveillance balloon,” Mr. Blinken said. “Once we detected the balloon, the U.S. Government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information. We communicated with the PRC Government directly through multiple channels about this issue. Members of my team consulted with our partners in other agencies and in Congress. We also engaged our close allies and partners to inform them of the presence of the surveillance balloon in our airspace. We concluded that conditions were not conducive for a constructive visit at this time.” “In the meantime,” he added, “the United States will continue to maintain open lines of communication with China, including to address this ongoing incident.”
Next week’s visit had been agreed to by both countries in November, following a first meeting between Presidents Biden and Xi Jinping as leaders of their two countries, on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Bali. The visit had been seen as an effort to ensure stability in a worsening relationship, with two sides recently clashing over a number of issues such as Taiwan, human rights, and trade, with Beijing hitting out at U.S. export controls. The leaders had agreed to take steps to introduce “guardrails” to ensure growing competition would not descend into conflict.