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

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Antony Blinken

By Amanda Macias, CNBC

4th February 2023 – (Washington) U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will postpone his trip to China next week following a suspected Beijing-operated spy balloon looming over parts of Montana.

“After consultations with our interagency partners, as well as with Congress, we have concluded that the conditions are not right at this moment for Secretary Blinken to travel to China,” a senior State Department official said Friday on a background briefing with reporters.

Blinken, who was slated to depart for Beijing on Friday evening, was scheduled to meet with his Chinese counterpart, Minister of Foreign Affairs Qin Gang, and potentially Chinese President Xi Jinping, as well.

The official declined to say when Blinken would reschedule his travel to China, saying only that the department would “determine when the conditions are right.”

Chinese authorities said Friday that the balloon operating over U.S. airspace was a civilian weather balloon intended for scientific research. But the State Department said that was immaterial.

“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.

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.

China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that westerly winds had caused the airship to stray into U.S. territory, describing the incident as a result of “force majeure” — or greater force — for which it was not responsible. “The airship comes from China and is of a civilian nature, used for scientific research such as meteorology,” according to a Google translation of a statement on the foreign ministry’s website.

On Thursday, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters that the U.S. was aware of the balloon and was confident that it was China’s.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity as ground rules established by the Pentagon, added that President Joe Biden was briefed on the matter. Following consultations with senior leaders, including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Biden decided the U.S. would not shoot down the balloon, the official said.

“We had been looking at whether there was an option yesterday over some sparsely populated areas in Montana,” said the official, who noted it was decided the possible debris field from the balloon could cause damage on the ground and that its intelligence collection potential has “limited additive value” compared with Chinese spy satellites.

“We wanted to take care that somebody didn’t get hurt or property wasn’t destroyed,” the official added.

On Capitol Hill, members of Congress sounded alarms and sought more information from the Biden administration.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the military should have shot down the balloon.

“It was a mistake to not shoot down that Chinese spy balloon when it was over a sparsely populated area,” Rubio tweeted on Friday.

“This is not some hot air balloon, it has a large payload of sensors roughly the size of two city buses & the ability to maneuver independently,” Rubio added.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Ca., said he had requested a briefing of 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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