In a sharp and sudden escalation of tensions, the US has postponed Secretary of State Antony Blinken's upcoming visit to Beijing over a Chinese surveillance balloon floating over America, calling it a "clear and unacceptable violation of US sovereignty" and "international laws".
A senior State Department official told reporters on a hurriedly convened news conference call on Friday morning that the US has taken note of the Chinese statement of regret and stressed that the visit has only been postponed and not cancelled and the Secretary of State intends to visit China at the earliest opportunity when conditions are more conducive.
Blinken was scheduled to leave for China later on Friday for wide-ranging talks in a follow up to the first in-person summit between President Joe Biden and China's Xi Jinping in Bali on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in November. Blinken informed his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi of his decision earlier in the day, the official said.
Beijing had sought to defuse tensions expressing regret and said that the balloon - which it called an "airship" - "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".
Asked if the Chinese expression of regret was not enough, the official said: "We note the PRC (People's Republic of China) statement of regret. But again, the presence of this balloon in our airspace is clearly unacceptable and a clear violation of our sovereignty. And our clear assessment was that under these current conditions, it wouldn't be constructive to visit Beijing at this time."
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The official added: "But I'll also reiterate that this is a postponement. And the Secretary plans to travel at the earliest appropriate opportunity."
The US had raised the spy balloon with the Chinese at multiple levels. The Secretary and Deputy Secretary conveyed this message clearly and directly to the PRC's senior Washington-based official on Wednesday evening, the official said, adding that the same message was delivered at senior levels in Beijing.
The US also engaged close allies to inform them of the presence of the surveillance asset in our airspace. "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 it is unacceptable that this has occurred," the official said.
The US Department of Defense said Thursday it was closely monitoring a Chinese spy balloon that is said to be the size of three passenger buses wafting across the sky and it has considered shooting it down but has hesitated so far fearing falling debris on civilian populations underneath.
This was not the first such sighting. It's happened before, but the US Defense Department said this is the longest Chinese spy balloon has been seen hovering the country. And it comes as Blinken was preparing to visit China and President Biden is slated to deliver his first State of the Union speech in a Republican-led House of Representatives.
The State Department official said these sightings might have happened before but this was the first time it took place on the eve of the Secretary of State's visit to China.
India will be following this spy balloon's flight as well for insights and lessons given its own border challenges with China, whose military has provoked a string of skirmishes along the Line of Control in recent years, the last of them took place in December, and with increasing frequency.
"The United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now," Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brigadier Gen. Pat Ryder said during an impromptu briefing on Thursday evening. "The US government, to include NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), continues to track and monitor it closely."
But the balloon poses no threat to commercial air traffic as it's positioned way above that height, Ruder said.
President Biden has been briefed, according to news reports.
A senior defense official who briefed reporters on background said that the US intelligence community has "very high confidence" the balloon belonged to China and the US has engaged China on it "with urgency, through multiple channels".
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The US is weighing options on how to deal with the balloon but for now, the official said, it's been decided at the highest level in the US military - Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley - to let it float overhead, rather than to shoot it down. The key concern being the safety of civilians down below.
"We did assess that it was large enough to cause damage from the debris field if we downed it over an area," the official said. "I can't really go into the dimension - but there have been reports of pilots seeing this thing, even though it's pretty high up in the sky. So ... it's sizable."
But the US is largely leery of the mission of this spy mission. "Currently, we assess that this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collective collection perspective," the official said. "But we are taking steps, nevertheless, to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information."