Blinken calls Chinese ‘spy’ balloon incident ‘irresponsible’; second balloon over Latin America

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the spy balloon incident on the eve of his China trip was an “irresponsible act” by China.. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON - US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called an incident related to a Chinese “spy” balloon over the US an “irresponsible act” by China.

He has also postponed a visit to Beijing that had been expected to start on Friday.

The suspected “spy” balloon was tracking across the US in what Washington called a “clear violation” of its sovereignty.

The Pentagon said on Friday another Chinese balloon was observed over Latin America, without saying where exactly.

“We are seeing reports of a balloon transiting Latin America. We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said.

The balloon over the US has changed course and is now floating eastwards at about 60,000 feet (18,300m) over the central part of the country.

This demonstrates a capability to manoeuvre, the US military said on Friday.

At a news conference with South Korea’s visiting foreign minister on Friday, Mr Blinken said he conveyed the US position on the incident to Mr Wang Yi, director of China’s Central Commission for Foreign Affairs.

But he said Washington remained committed to engagement and he would visit China when conditions allowed.

Mr Blinken said he would not put a date on when he might go to China and the focus was on resolving the current incident.

“The first step is ... getting the surveillance asset, out of our air space,” he said, adding that Washington would maintain open lines of communication with China.

On Thursday, the Pentagon said it was tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon over the continental United States.

Officials said military leaders considered shooting it down over Montana on Wednesday but eventually recommended against this to President Joe Biden because of the safety risk from debris.  

White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said Mr Biden was briefed on the balloon flight on Tuesday and there was an administration “consensus that it was not appropriate to travel to the People’s Republic of China at this time.”

China on Friday expressed regret that an “airship” used for civilian meteorological and other scientific purposes had strayed into US airspace.

But the disclosure about the spy balloon’s manoeuvrability directly challenges China’s assertion that the balloon was merely a civilian airship that had strayed into US territory after being blown off course.

Ms Jean-Pierre said the US administration was aware of China’s statement “but the presence of this balloon in our airspace, it is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law. It is unacceptable this occurred.”

“We know this is a Chinese (surveillance) balloon and that it has the ability to manoeuvre,” Air Force Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told a news briefing at the Pentagon, declining to say precisely how it was powered or who in China was controlling its flight path.

The Pentagon expects the balloon to continue traveling over US airspace for a few more days, Mr Ryder said, declining to speculate on what options the US military might develop in that time as speculation swirled about whether Mr Biden could still order the balloon be destroyed or perhaps captured.

Mr Ryder said the US military would not specify where precisely the balloon was positioned over the central United States, saying he didn’t want to get into an “hour-by-hour” cycle of updates. He said people in any given US state could look up into the sky if they wanted.

“The public certainly has the ability to look up in the sky and see where the balloon is,” Mr Ryder said, adding that the balloon posed no risk to people on the ground.

Commercial forecaster AccuWeather said the balloon would potentially leave United States into the Atlantic on Saturday evening.

There is growing political fallout over the Chinese balloon’s presence over the United States

The Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, said the balloon should never have been allowed in US airspace and could have been shot down over water. “I am calling on the Biden administration to quickly take steps to remove the Chinese spy balloon from US airspace,” he said in a statement

Mr Mike Rounds, a Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Fox News it would be good to recover the balloon “one way or another” to see “if it was designed to actually collect data or if it was designed to test our response capabilities.”

Remote video URL

Senator Roger Marshall from Kansas said the spy balloon was over the northeastern part of his state and his staff was is in contact with law enforcement officials.

“I condemn any attempts the Chinese make to spy on Americans. President Biden must protect the sovereignty of the US,” Mr Marshall posted on Twitter.

Postponement of Mr Blinken’s trip, which had been arranged in November by Mr Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, is a blow to those on both sides who saw it as an overdue opportunity to stabilize an increasingly fractious relationship. The last visit by a US secretary of state was in 2017.

Mr Biden ignored questions about the balloon when giving remarks on the economy on Friday morning.

Chinese spy satellites carry similar sensors to what US officials believe is on the spy balloon, raising questions about why Beijing would risk such a brazen act on the eve of a major diplomatic event.

Still, the Chinese spy balloon has taken a flight path that would carry it over a number of sensitive sites, officials say. One such site could be military bases, including in Montana, which is home to intercontinental ballistic missile silos.

The Billings, Montana, airport on Wednesday issued a ground stop as the military mobilized assets including F-22 fighter jets in case Mr Biden ordered that the balloon be shot down. REUTERS

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.