pentagon detects spy balloon over u s blinken cancels china trip

The Pentagon called the object, which had been seen flying over Montana, an “intelligence-gathering balloon.” Beijing said it was used mainly for weather research and had strayed off course.

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Friday canceled a weekend trip to Beijing after a Chinese high-altitude balloon, described as an “intelligence-gathering” airship by the Pentagon and a stray civilian device by China, was detected floating over the United States this week.

The cancellation was the culmination of a diplomatic clash that had been unfolding since at least Wednesday over the balloon, and the episode adds to the rising tensions over policies and military actions between the two superpowers. Mr. Blinken had planned to leave Friday night for the trip, the first visit by a U.S. secretary of state to China since 2018.

He had been expected to meet with President Xi Jinping and discuss a wide range of issues. But the appearance of the balloon was a violation of sovereignty, and Mr. Blinken and other U.S. officials made clear to Chinese officials in Washington and Beijing that the intrusion was “unacceptable and irresponsible,” a senior State Department official said.

Some prominent Republican lawmakers and officials began criticizing President Biden on Thursday for allowing the balloon to drift for days over the United States and not taking harsher measures against China.

The balloon, which had traveled over Alaska and Canada earlier, was still above the United States on Friday, U.S. officials said.

Mr. Blinken and Wendy Sherman, the deputy secretary of state, spoke with the Chinese Embassy on Wednesday night about the balloon, and on Friday morning Mr. Blinken told China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, that he was postponing his trip, the officials said.

There is no new date for Mr. Blinken’s trip, and aides said he would make the visit when conditions were right.

The appearance of the Chinese balloon, on the eve of Mr. Blinken’s visit, would have narrowed the range of discussions, said State Department officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Antony J. Blinken would have been the first U.S. secretary of state to visit China since 2018.Doug Mills/The New York Times

Pentagon officials said that while there have been other episodes of surveillance balloons hovering over the United States in recent years, this one has lingered longer than any of the previous ones.

The Chinese government had sought to defuse tensions with Washington on Friday over the balloon. It expressed its regret over the incident, and saying the balloon was for civilian research and had “deviated far from its planned course.” The statement appeared to be an effort to keep Mr. Blinken’s visit on track.

Officials in the White House and State Department discussed whether to postpone the visit throughout Thursday night and Friday morning, after American news organizations began reporting on the balloon and the Pentagon held a briefing on it.

Chinese officials had been anticipating the visit as an important moment to mark China’s reopening to the world after Mr. Xi made a decision in December to end his “zero Covid” policy, which had led to protests last fall and exacerbated a severe economic slowdown. Mr. Xi met with Mr. Biden on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, in November, to advance what officials from both countries called efforts to maintain stability in the relationship.

State Department officials said they had noted China’s expression of regret on Friday but did not believe the assertion that the flying craft was an innocent device. They said the Pentagon’s assessment was accurate.

While the Pentagon played down the balloon’s potential value for acquiring intelligence, the initial public reaction by Biden administration officials underscored how brittle relations with Beijing have become.Eva Hambach/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Both the Trump and Biden administrations have adopted a combative stance toward China, saying that the Chinese Communist Party is intent on undermining the U.S.-led world order and has the ability to do so. Mr. Biden has greatly expanded efforts to hobble China’s technological advancements. And he has worked with allies and partners across Asia, including with Taiwan, the de facto independent island that China claims, to bolster military forces in the event of an armed conflict with the People’s Liberation Army of China.

On Thursday, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said in Manila that the U.S. military would begin using as many as nine bases across the Philippines for temporary housing of troops and equipment, a move clearly aimed at deterring China from trying to invade Taiwan or take further military action in the South China Sea.

Biden administration officials are sensitive to any suggestions, including from Republican politicians, that they are not taking a hard line against China, though State Department officials did not say whether those domestic political concerns were a factor in canceling Mr. Blinken’s trip.

Republican officials laid out various demands of Mr. Blinken after the news of the balloon emerged on Thursday.

A post on the official Twitter account of Republican lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by Representative Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas, said it was “imperative” that Mr. Blinken tell Mr. Xi and his government that “their military adventurism will no longer be tolerated.” Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, wrote online that Mr. Blinken should cancel his trip.

Mr. Biden is scheduled to give his annual State of the Union speech in Congress on Tuesday.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III announced an expansion of the U.S. military presence in the Philippines this week.Pool photo by Rolex dela Pena

Jessica Chen Weiss, a political scientist at Cornell University who recently worked in the State Department on China policy, said the decision to cancel Mr. Blinken’s trip “reflects the unfortunate triumph of symbolism over substance,” given what the Pentagon called the nonthreatening nature of the balloon.

“It also confirms the low expectations going into the trip, that the potential upside should have been so outweighed by the domestic political risks of visiting Beijing amid congressional outrage,” she said.

Daniel Russel, a former assistant secretary of state for the East Asia and the Pacific and a vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said “the administration clearly was dissatisfied with the Chinese government’s public expression of regret — perhaps because Beijing insisted on hiding behind the laughable alibi that this was a weather balloon blown off course.”

“However, this incident has soured the atmosphere and hardened positions and there’s no guarantee the two sides can successfully resurrect the Bali momentum,” he said.

The explanation from the Chinese Foreign Ministry came after Pentagon officials said Thursday that they had detected a balloon, “most certainly launched by the People’s Republic of China,” over Montana, which is home to about 150 intercontinental ballistic missile silos.

After initially telling a news conference that it had to check on the claims about the balloon, the ministry said late Friday in Beijing that the balloon’s course was an accident.

“The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes,” an unidentified spokesperson for the ministry said in a statement on its website. “Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure.”

“Force majeure” refers to a violation caused by forces beyond a party’s control.

Taiwanese fighter jets at an airbase. Taiwan’s defense ministry has said that China flew balloons over the island in early 2022.Johnson Lai/Associated Press

The ministry said it would now talk with U.S. officials about how to “properly handle this unexpected situation.”

“It’s a plausible explanation, but it’s preposterous that they didn’t guess it would end up in North America,” said Lynn McMurdie, a professor in atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, who had modeled the balloon’s flight path.

“With the weather pattern right now, we have quite a strong jet across the Pacific, and something that originates in China would end up in Montana,” she added. “Why wouldn’t they know that it would end up here?”

Ross Hays, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, who had also carried out his own wide-scale analysis, said it was very probable that a balloon from China could end up over Montana based on the current weather pattern.

Canada said Thursday that it had also detected the balloon and was tracking a “potential second incident.”

Speaking before China’s statement was issued, Drew Thompson, a former Pentagon official who is now a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said that at best, China’s actions were “irresponsible.”

“I don’t think the statement changes the facts or the violation of U.S. airspace,” he said.

Mr. Austin held a meeting on Wednesday about the balloon with senior U.S. defense officials while he was in the Philippines, and Mr. Biden “was briefed and asked for military options,” a Pentagon official told reporters.

The Pentagon has refused to disclose many details about the balloon, including its size and features, making it harder for outside experts to assess its intent and value. “We did assess that it was large enough to cause damage from the debris field if we downed it over an area,” a senior Department of Defense official told reporters.

The once-humble balloon is one of many technologies that China’s military forces have seized on as a potential tool in their rivalry with the United States and other powers.

In studies and newspaper articles, People’s Liberation Army experts have tracked efforts by the United States, France and other countries to use advanced high-altitude balloons for intelligence collection and for coordinating battlefield operations. New materials and technologies, they have said, have made balloons more resilient, maneuverable and far-ranging.

“Technological advances have opened a new door for the use of balloons,” one article in the Liberation Army Daily — the main newspaper of China’s military — stated last year. Another article in the same newspaper noted that airships in the upper reaches of the atmosphere could also become like “a thousand eyes” helping to monitor outer space.

Taiwan’s defense ministry has said that in early 2022, China flew balloons over the island. The balloon sent over the United States may be used to collect information on air defense systems or atmospheric conditions, said Su Tzu-yun, an analyst at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taipei.

“Basically, they’re very obvious,” he said, “and because of their large volume, they’re very easily tracked in time by radar.”

Michael Crowley contributed reporting from Washington, Euan Ward from London and Amy Chang Chien from Taipei.

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