Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed a visit to China, the United States government has confirmed, calling the presence of an alleged Chinese spy balloon in American airspace an “unacceptable” violation of its sovereignty.
A senior Department of State official said on Friday that “conditions are not right” for the visit that was set to start on Sunday due to the “irresponsible” balloon flight.
China has expressed regret for the balloon entering US airspace, describing it as a civilian airship used for meteorological research that “deviated far from its planned course” because of its “limited self-steering capability”. But the US administration said the aircraft was a “high-altitude surveillance balloon”.
“We have noted the PRC [People’s Republic of China] 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 Department of State official told reporters on the condition of anonymity.
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The official stressed that lines of communication remain open between Washington and Beijing as they seek to “responsibly manage” the intensifying competition between the two countries.
“Our clear assessment was that under these current conditions, it wouldn’t be constructive to visit Beijing at this time, but I’ll also reiterate that this is a postponement and the secretary [Blinken] plans to travel at the earliest appropriate opportunity when conditions allow,” the official said.
Ties between Beijing and Washington have soured over numerous points of tension in recent years, including trade issues, the status of Taiwan, claims to the South China Sea and an ongoing US push against growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific.
The US has also been warning China against coming to Russia’s aid in Ukraine.
Blinken’s now-postponed trip was aimed at mitigating some of those tensions. It would have been the first visit by a US secretary of state to China since 2018, when then-top diplomat Mike Pompeo travelled to Beijing and met his counterpart but not President Xi Jinping.
US President Joe Biden met Xi on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia late in 2022.
Both Chinese and US officials have stressed that they do not seek confrontation, warning against turning the competition into a new Cold War.
Reporting from the White House, Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett said the balloon controversy would have overshadowed Blinken’s trip to China.
“There are already a lot of big issues to be discussed between these two nations… This would be overarching over all of them,” she said.
The balloon was first observed over the northern US state of Montana on Thursday. But the Pentagon said on Friday that it is now “over the centre of the continental United States” without specifying over which state exactly.
“We currently assess that the balloon does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground at this time, and we’ll continue to monitor and review options,” Pentagon press secretary Pat Ryder told reporters.
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He added that the balloon is flying well above civilian air traffic.
Ryder also dismissed the Chinese explanation that the balloon was a civilian aircraft for research. “The fact is: We know that it’s a surveillance balloon,” he said.
Several Republican members of the US Congress demanded answers and action from the Biden administration over the incident.
Republican Senator Josh Hawley called for a congressional hearing on the balloon, describing it as a “major domestic security threat”.
The Homeland Security Committee needs to have public hearings NOW on the Chinese spy balloon – how did Biden let this happen? Major domestic security threat
— Josh Hawley (@HawleyMO) February 3, 2023
Congressman Scott Fitzgerald welcomed Blinken’s decision to postpone his trip, but said “the administration must do much more to tell China that espionage will not be tolerated against the United States”.
Other lawmakers called on the Pentagon to bring down the balloon.
“Why won’t Biden shoot down the Chinese spy balloon that is currently flying over the United States? The Chinese Communist Party is a threat to our existence,” Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn wrote on Twitter.
US defence officials have said that debris from the aircraft could pose a threat to civilians on the ground if they shoot it down.
Democratic Senator Jon Tester, who represents Montana, called the balloon a “completely unacceptable” provocation.
“We are 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,” Tester said in a statement.
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Canada, which borders Montana and has frosty relations with China, said it had summoned the Chinese ambassador on Thursday over the incident.
“We will continue to vigorously express our position to Chinese officials through multiple channels,” the Canadian foreign ministry told Al Jazeera in an email.
Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Melanie Joly said she discussed the security of the country’s airspace with Blinken on Friday.
“We are collaborating with our American partners and continue to take all necessary measures to safeguard Canada’s sensitive information,” Joly said in a tweet.