US postpones Blinken trip to China over ‘spy balloon’ incident

A picture obtained from social media showing a balloon in the sky over Billings, Montana, on Feb 1. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON – The Biden administration has decided to postpone Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s upcoming trip to Beijing after detecting a Chinese surveillance balloon that was lingering at high altitude over sensitive nuclear sites in the United States, Bloomberg reported on Friday.

Mr Blinken was set to have meetings in Beijing early next week in the first such visit by a top US diplomat in five years.

But the presence of the balloon – which the Pentagon decided not to shoot down – led officials to decide that going now would send the wrong signal, according to people familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations.

White House and State Department officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

China took unusually conciliatory steps to smooth over the incident on Friday, with the Foreign Ministry saying it was “regretful” that a “civilian airship” entered US airspace because of forces beyond its control. It said the balloon was conducting climate research.

The balloon was first spotted earlier this week and had been loitering over Montana, home to intercontinental ballistic missile silos, a senior Defence Department official said on Wednesday. The official said the balloon posed no intelligence threat and such incursions have happened before.

But the Pentagon’s announcement about the balloon on Thursday prompted an outcry from Republican lawmakers, with Representative Mike Gallagher, chairman of a new House committee meant to highlight the Chinese threat, saying the presence of the balloon “makes clear that the CCP’s recent diplomatic overtures do not represent a substantive change in policy”, referring to the Communist Party of China.

Just an ‘airship’

Earlier in the day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning cautioned the US against “hyping” the incident. “We have no intention to violate other countries’ sovereignty and airspace,” Ms Mao told a briefing, adding that she hoped “the relevant parties will handle the matter in a cool-headed way”.

The ministry later issued a statement saying the balloon is an “airship” that is flying over the US for civilian research purposes, and voiced regret that it strayed into US airspace.

“The airship is from China and is civilian in nature, used for meteorological and other scientific research. Due to the influence of westerly winds and its limited control capability, the airship deviated from its intended course,” it said.

“China regrets that the airship strayed into the United States by mistake due to force majeure. China will continue to maintain communication with the US side to properly handle this accident.”

Mr Blinken’s trip was set to be the most senior US visit to China since 2018.

For the Biden administration, it was part of an effort to keep the China rivalry from getting worse. For leaders in Beijing, it was meant to signal China’s emergence from post-pandemic lockdown and a desire to reconnect with the rest of the world.

US officials declined to answer several questions about the balloon, including the precise target of its surveillance, its size or other specifications.

“It is currently travelling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground,” Brigadier-General Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters on Thursday night.

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The incident recalls the lengths to which Beijing and Washington have been willing to go to spy on each other amid rising tensions between the superpowers.

Hours after the US announcement, Canada said it was working with Washington to track the balloon, and that it was monitoring a “potential second incident”.

“Canadians are safe and Canada is taking steps to ensure the security of its airspace, including the monitoring of a potential second incident,” Canada’s Defence Department said.

US Senator Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the spy balloon was alarming but not surprising. “The level of espionage aimed at our country by Beijing has grown dramatically more intense and brazen over the last five years,” Mr Rubio said on Twitter.

His fellow Republican, Senator Tom Cotton, had called for Mr Blinken to cancel his trip.

Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said he would request a “Gang of Eight” briefing, referring to a classified national security briefing for congressional leaders and Republican and Democratic leaders of the intelligence committees.

The Biden administration briefed Gang of Eight staff earlier on Thursday and offered additional briefings, a US official said.

Relations between China and the US have soured in recent years, particularly following then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022, which prompted dramatic Chinese military drills near the self-ruled island. Since then, Washington and Beijing have sought to communicate more frequently and prevent ties from worsening.

Potential safety risk

US military leaders considered shooting down the balloon over Montana on Wednesday, but eventually advised President Joe Biden against it because of the safety risk from debris.

The airport at the city of Billings, Montana, issued a ground stop as the military mobilised assets including F-22 fighter jets in case Mr Biden ordered the balloon be shot down.

“We wanted to make sure we were coordinating with the civil authorities to empty out the airspace around that potential area,” an official said. “But even with those protective measures taken, it was the judgment of our military commanders that we did not drive the risk down low enough. So we did not take the shot.”

The official said the balloon’s flight path would have carried it over a number of sensitive sites, but did not give details. Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana is home to 150 intercontinental ballistic missile silos.

Officials declined to say how high the balloon was flying but acknowledged that it was operating above civilian air traffic and below “outer space”.

Limited intelligence value?

Such balloons typically operate at 80,000ft to 120,000ft, well above where commercial air traffic flies. The highest-performing fighter aircraft typically do not operate above 65,000ft, although spy planes such as the U-2 have a service ceiling of 80,000ft or more.

Mr Craig Singleton, a China expert at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, said that such balloons had been widely used by the US and Soviet Union during the Cold War and are a low-cost intelligence gathering method.

Spy balloons have flown over the US several times in recent years, but this one seemed to be lingering longer than before, an official said.

“Currently, we assess that this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective, but we are taking steps nevertheless to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information.”

Security analyst Alexander Neill said that while the balloon was likely to provide a fresh irritant to China-US ties, it was probably of limited intelligence value compared with other elements that China’s modernising military has at its disposal.

“China has its own constellation of spy and military satellites that are far more important and effective in terms of watching the US, so I think it is a fair assumption that the intelligence gain is not huge,” said Mr Neill, who is an adjunct fellow at Hawaii’s Pacific Forum think-tank. BLOOMBERG, REUTERS, AFP

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