Blinken tells China its spy balloon is ‘irresponsible’ after it canceled journey to Beijing

WASHINGTON — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken indefinitely postponed an already tense trip to China on Friday by leading a Chinese reconnaissance balloon moving east over the United States and posing a threat to national security.

Blinken was scheduled to leave for Beijing on Friday evening, on a trip designed to strengthen communication and cooperation between the two countries.

Instead, he told China’s Central Foreign Affairs Office director Wang Yi in a phone call on Friday that the balloon was an “irresponsible act and a clear violation of US sovereignty and international law that undermines the purpose of the trip,” according to a reading of the discussion.

Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told NBC News the Department of Defense is aware of reports of another balloon “crossing through Latin America. We now assume that it is another Chinese surveillance balloon.”

Over the past year, Chinese President Xi Jinping has deepened tensions with the US by forging closer alliances with Russian President Vladimir Putin and escalating military aggression against Taiwan.

Blinken had scheduled a meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Qin Gang, and hoped to see Xi as well.

China’s Foreign Ministry said on Friday that the balloon, a civilian weather airship intended for scientific research, had gone off course. She described the incident as a result of “force majeure” for which she was not responsible.

This claim was dismissed out of hand by US officials. A senior Pentagon official told reporters Thursday night that the object was clearly a surveillance balloon flying over sensitive locations to gather information.

“We have noted the PRC’s statement of regret, but the presence of this balloon in our airspace is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law and it is unacceptable that this has happened,” the official said.

The balloon is traveling east at an altitude of over 60,000 feet, so it poses no threat to civilian aircraft, defense officials said.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the Pentagon were working closely “to support any necessary US government response to the balloon,” the FAA said in a statement late Friday.

“The balloon currently poses no threat to civil aviation. If that changes, the FAA stands ready to take action,” the agency said.

On Friday afternoon, Republican Senator Roger Marshall from Kansas reported that the balloon was flying over his home state.

Defense officials said the Pentagon was considering shooting down the balloon earlier this week but decided against it after a briefing from President Joe Biden. The decision was made in consultation with senior officials including General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

Biden concluded that the US would not launch the balloon because debris from it could cause damage to the ground, a Pentagon official said. In addition, any information the balloon gathers would have “limited value” compared to China’s spy satellites.

“At this stage we are monitoring it and reviewing options,” Pentagon spokesman US Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters, adding that officials expect the balloon to remain in US airspace for a few days.

Pentagon spokesman U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Gen. Patrick Ryder speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon Friday, February 3, 2023 in Washington.

Alex Brandon | AP

Beijing’s apparent provocation so close to Blinken’s visit raised alarm on Capitol Hill.

“It is no coincidence that this happened just before Blinken was due to visit Beijing,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“They do things like this to humiliate the other side, to project strength and to send a message. I don’t think that was a coincidence. I think it certainly had something to do with that,” Rubio said on Friday’s radio talk show The Mike Gallagher. Show.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who represents the state where the balloon flew overhead on Thursday, said he is in touch with Department of Defense and Intelligence officials on the matter. One of the country’s three nuclear missile silo fields is located at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.

On Friday, Tester announced he would be holding a Senate hearing on the balloon, but didn’t say exactly when.

“I demand answers from the Biden administration. I will bring people before my committee for real answers as to how this happened and how we can prevent it from ever happening again,” he said in a statement announcing the hearing.

The Montana Democrat chairs the Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He is also widely regarded as one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the Senate, up for re-election in 2024.

CNBC Policy

Read more about CNBC’s political coverage:

The spy balloon incident comes at a moment of high tension between the United States and China. Beijing’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea and its aggressive attempt to control Taiwan have long worried US officials, but recently their concerns have become more pressing.

On Thursday, Austin was in the Philippine capital, Manilla, where the two countries announced the Philippines would grant the United States expanded access to its military bases. The island nation is strategically located in the southeast corner of the South China Sea, about 750 miles from Taiwan.

Austin said expanding access for US troops is “particularly important as the People’s Republic of China continues to advance its illegitimate claims in the West Philippine Sea,” using the Philippine-designated phrase to refer to parts of the South China Sea.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., requested a secret briefing for the so-called Gang of Eight, made up of the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, and leaders of both party Senate and Senate intelligence committees of the House.

The Gang of Eight will receive that briefing next week, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told DN.Y. said NBC News late Friday.

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