China’s suspected spy balloon prompts Blinken to postpone Beijing trip as Congress seeks answers

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends a meeting with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, July 9, 2022.

Stefani Reynolds | AP

WASHINGTON – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has indefinitely postponed an already tense trip to China next week after officials said they spotted a “sizable” Chinese reconnaissance balloon looming over parts of Montana that posed a threat to national security.

Blinken was slated to depart for Beijing on Friday night for a trip that State Department officials said was intended to reestablish lines of communication and cooperation. In the past year, Chinese President Xi Jinping has forged closer alliances with Russian President Vladimir Putin and ratcheted up military aggression against Taiwan.

Blinken was scheduled to meet with his Chinese counterpart, Minister of Foreign Affairs Qin Gang, and hoped to see Xi, as well. A State Department official told reporters Friday that “the conditions are not right at this moment” for Blinken’s trip.

China’s Foreign Ministry said Friday that the balloon was a civilian weather airship intended for scientific research that was blown off course. It described the incident as a result of a “force majeure” for which it was not responsible.

This claim was summarily dismissed by U.S. officials. A senior Pentagon official told reporters Thursday night that the object was clearly a surveillance balloon that was flying over sensitive sites to collect intelligence.

“We have noted the PRC 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 is unacceptable that this has occurred,” the official said.

The balloon is moving east at an altitude above 60,000 feet so it is not a threat to civil aircraft, Pentagon officials said.

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

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

Biden concluded that the U.S. would not shoot down the balloon because debris from it could cause damage on the ground, Pentagon official said. Moreover, any information the balloon collects would have “limited additive value” compared with China’s spy satellites.

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

Beijing’s apparent provocation so close to Blinken’s visit set off alarms on Capitol Hill.

“It’s not coincidental that this is happening right before Blinken was supposed to visit Beijing,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“They do these sorts of things to humiliate the other side, project strength and send a message. I don’t think this was coincidental. I think it was certainly tied to that,” Rubio said Friday on radio talk show “The Mike Gallagher Show.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who represents the state where the balloon was flying overhead Thursday, said in a statement that he was in contact with Defense Department and intelligence officials over the matter. One of the nation’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base is located in the state. But as of Friday morning, Tester said he was still “waiting for real answers on how this happened and what steps the administration took to protect our country, and I will hold everyone accountable until I get them.”

While Blinken has postponed his travel, the U.S. and China have not suspended communication over the incident.

“From the moment this incident occurred, we have been in regular and frequent contact with our Chinese counterparts and I do anticipate that will continue,” said the State Department official, who asked not to be identified to discuss a sensitive intelligence matter.

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The incident came at a moment of high tension between the United States and China. Beijing’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea and its aggressive effort to control Taiwan have long concerned U.S. officials, but recently their worries have grown more urgent.

On Thursday, Austin was in the Philippine capital of 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, approximately 750 miles from Taiwan.

Austin said expanding access for U.S. troops “was especially important as the People’s Republic of China continues to advance its illegitimate claims in the West Philippine Sea,” using the phrase designated by the Philippines to refer to parts of the South China Sea.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has requested a briefing for the so-called Gang of Eight, the Republican and Democratic leaders of both the House and Senate, and the leaders from both parties of the Senate and House Intelligence committees. 

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