WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a visit to China that had been expected to start on Friday after a Chinese spy balloon was tracked flying across the United States in what U.S. officials called a “clear violation” of U.S. sovereignty.
“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 told reporters.
“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 official said.
“The secretary conveyed to the director of the Central Foreign Affairs Office Wang Yi earlier this morning, that the trip would need to be postponed. But the secretary indicated that he would plan to travel to the PRC at the earliest opportunity when conditions allow.”
ABC News earlier cited an U.S. official as saying Blinken did not want to blow the situation out of proportion by canceling his visit, but also did not want the balloon incident to dominate his meetings with Chinese officials.
China expressed regret that a “civilian” airship had strayed into U.S. territory after being blown off course, an incident that sparked a political furor in the United States.
Pentagon spokesperson Air Force Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told reporters on Thursday that the government was tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon over the continental United States and said it was “traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.”
U.S. military leaders considered shooting down the balloon over Montana on Wednesday but eventually President Joe Biden decided against it because of the safety risk from debris, U.S. officials said on Thursday.
Republican Senator Tom Cotton had called for Blinken to cancel his trip, while Republican former President Donald Trump, a declared presidential candidate for 2024, posted “SHOOT DOWN THE BALLOON!” on his Truth Social media platform.
In a statement on Friday, China’s foreign ministry said the balloon was for civilian meteorological and other scientific purposes and that it regretted that the airship had strayed into U.S. airspace.
Postponement of Blinken’s trip, which was agreed to in November by Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, is a blow to those on both sides who saw it as an overdue opportunity to stabilize an increasingly fractious relationship. The last visit by a U.S. secretary of state was in 2017.
Biden ignored questions about the balloon when giving remarks on the economy Friday morning.
China is keen for a stable U.S. relationship so it can focus on its economy, battered by the now-abandoned zero-COVID policy and neglected by foreign investors alarmed by what they see as a return of state intervention in the market.
In recent months Chinese leader Xi Jinping has met with world leaders, seeking to re-establish ties and settle disagreements.
Daniel Russel, the top U.S. diplomat for Asia under former President Barack Obama said he did not see a strategic rationale for cancelling the trip.
“The United States has far bigger problems to confront with the Chinese than a surveillance balloon, and the loss of this high-level engagement sets back the effort to put a floor under the relationship,” he said.
Relations between China and the United States have soured in recent years, particularly following then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August, which prompted dramatic Chinese military drills near the self-ruled island.
One U.S. official said the balloon was assessed to have “limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective.”
One American official said the flight path would carry the balloon over a number of sensitive sites, but did not give details. Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana is home to 150 intercontinental ballistic missile silos.
The Billings, Montana, airport issued a ground stop as the military mobilized assets including F-22 fighter jets in case Biden ordered that the balloon be shot down.
Billings resident Chase Doak, who filmed it on Wednesday, said at first he thought it was a star.
“But I thought that was kind of crazy because it was broad daylight and when I looked at it, it was just too big to be a star,” he told Reuters.
Such balloons typically operate at 80,000-120,000 feet (24,000-37,000 meters), well above where commercial air traffic flies. The highest-performing fighter aircraft typically do not operate above 65,000 feet, although spy planes such as the U-2 have a service ceiling of 80,000 feet or more.
From military spy satellites in space to advanced electronic intelligence aircraft and submarines, the United States routinely deploys an array of assets to monitor China’s military buildup, analysts and diplomats say. China has often complained about surveillance by the United States, including its deployment of ships or planes near Chinese military exercises.