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 Montana, according two officials.
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 didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
China took unusually conciliatory steps to smooth over the incident 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 Defense Department official said 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, the 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.”
Earlier in the day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning cautioned the US against “hyping” the incident. “We have no intention to violate other countries’ sovereignty and airspace,” Mao told a briefing, adding that she hoped “the relevant parties will handle the matter in a cool-headed way.”
Blinken’s trip was set to be the most senior US visit to China since 2018. For the Biden administration, it’s part of an effort to keep the China rivalry from getting worse. For leaders in Beijing, it’s meant to signal China’s emergence from post-coronavirus 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 traveling 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 Thursday night.