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3 Feb, 2023 17:24

US delays top diplomat’s China trip over balloon

Antony Blinken won’t travel to Beijing as scheduled, the State Department said
US delays top diplomat’s China trip over balloon

Citing the need to respond to the presence of a Chinese high-altitude  balloon in US airspace, Washington postponed Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s planned trip to Beijing on Friday. While the Pentagon has expressed suspicion the aerostat might be used for surveillance, China said it was a weather balloon blown off course.

Blinken and President Joe Biden decided it was “best not to proceed with the trip at this time,” AP reported quoting a State Department official. The determination was made “just hours” before Blinken was due to board the plane.

The visit had been arranged by Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Indonesia last November, and was due to be Blinken’s first trip to Beijing since 2020.

The balloon was first spotted on Wednesday over the northwestern US. On Thursday, the Pentagon described it as “a high-altitude surveillance balloon.” Its last publicly known location was listed as above Billings, Montana. The US military decided not to shoot it down due to safety concerns, the Pentagon said.

Senator Steve Daines, a Montana Republican, reacted to the discovery by expressing alarm that the balloon was able to “infiltrate” US airspace and voicing concerns that it might be spying on nuclear missile facilities located in his state.

On Friday, Beijing said the balloon was indeed Chinese, but described it as “a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes.”

“Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement. It added that Beijing “regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure” and is working with Washington to “properly handle this unexpected situation.”