Blinken postpones trip to China after high-altitude balloon is seen over Montana

February  6, 2023

On Friday, February 3, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken postponed a trip to Beijing after a Chinese high-altitude balloon—described as a “intelligence-gathering” airship by the Pentagon and a stray civilian device by China—was detected floating over the United States  in the Montana skies this week, reports The New York Times.

The postponement was confirmed by State Department officials, citing the balloon and speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues.

Blinken and a deputy spoke with the Chinese Embassy on Wednesday night, and on Friday morning Blinken told China’s top foreign policy official, Wang Yi, that the balloon’s course was a violation of sovereignty and “unacceptable,” according to a State Department official.

There is no new date for Blinken’s trip to Beijing, the official added.

Beijing had sought to defuse tensions with Washington on Friday over the balloon, expressing its regret over the incident, and saying the balloon was for civilian research—mainly, weather research—and had “deviated far from its planned course.”

The explanation from the Chinese Foreign Ministry came after Pentagon officials said on 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 on Friday in Beijing that the balloon’s course was an innocent mistake.

“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.

Neither side has suggested that Beijing communicated with Washington about the balloon before the controversy broke on Thursday. But China said in its statement on Friday that it would now talk with U.S. officials about how to “properly handle this unexpected situation.”

While the Pentagon played down the potential value of the balloon for acquiring intelligence, the initial public reaction by Biden Administration officials had underscored how brittle and delicate relations with Beijing have become, even over one balloon.

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

China appeared eager to avoid letting the balloon become a festering irritant during Blinken’s planned two-day visit to Beijing, which had been scheduled to begin on Sunday. 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 the timing of the balloon flight was at least maladroit.

China is also smarting over the United States’ announcement on Thursday that it would expand its military presence in the Philippines, gaining access to four more sites that potentially could be used to marshal forces to deter or respond to Chinese military threats to Taiwan.

“This balloon surveillance mission really demonstrates that even when Xi is trying to improve the tone of the relationship and the rhetoric softens,” Thompson said of China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, “there is no interest on Beijing’s part to act with restraint or amend its behavior in ways that actually contribute to genuinely improving the condition of the relationship.”

After the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued its explanation, Thompson said: “I don’t think the statement changes the facts or the violation of U.S. airspace. At best, it is irresponsible.”

China’s Ministry of National Defense, which usually comments on military issues, did not comment.

Research contact: @nytimes