Biden avoids questions on Chinese balloon as Blinken cancels trip

The Pentagon said the airship is ‘currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground’

Andrew Feinberg
Friday 03 February 2023 15:17 GMT
'Chinese spy balloon' flies over US
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President Joe Biden on Friday declined to answer questions about the detection of a Chinese surveillance balloon over Montana after delivering remarks on the addition of 517,000 new jobs to the US economy last month.

Speaking from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Mr Biden told reporters he wouldn’t answer questions about anything other than the Labor Department report because doing so would keep reporters from writing about the positive jobs numbers.

Mr Biden’s appearance at the White House came just minutes after it became known that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had postponed his planned trip to China following Beijing’s admission that it was responsible for a surveillance balloon which was spotted over Montana on Thursday.

Mr Blinken was set to travel to Beijing this weekend to meet with top Chinese officials. Planning for the visit began after President Joe Biden’s meeting with Xi Jinping late last year, but the discovery of the Chinese balloon has put those plans off.

At a press conference alongside his South Korean counterpart, Park Jin, Mr Blinken said he had spoken with Wang Yi, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Foreign Affairs Office Director, to inform him of the decision to postpone the trip.

“Once we detected the balloon ... we communicated with the PRC government directly through multiple channels about this issue, members of my team consulted with our partners and other agencies, and in Congress. We also engaged our close allies and partners to inform them of the presence of the surveillance balloon in our airspace. We concluded that conditions were not conducive for a constructive visit at this time,” he said.

The Secretary of State said he’d used his phone call with Mr Wang to “make clear” that the surveillance balloon’s presence in American airspace was “ a clear violation of US sovereignty and international law” as well as “an irresponsible act” that would have been “detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have”.

“I told director Wang that the United States remains committed to diplomatic engagement with China, and that I plan to visit Beijing when conditions allow,” he continued, adding that the US and China would “continue to maintain open lines of communication ... including to address this ongoing incident”.

A senior State Department official who briefed reporters about the decision said the department had “concluded that the conditions are not right at this moment for Secretary Blinken to travel to China,” following what the official described as “consultations” with Congress and “interagency partners”.

The official said the department had “assessed” that it “would not be conducive or constructive” for Mr Blinken to travel to China at this time.

“Under the current circumstances ... I think candidly speaking, in this current environment, I think it would have significantly narrowed the agenda that we would have been able to address,” said the official, who added that State Department personnel “have been in regular and frequent contact” with their counterparts in Beijing and said they anticipated that contact would continue.

“We had hoped for constructive engagement on all three on all elements of our bilateral relationship. Of course, this issue would have narrowed that agenda in a way that would have been unhelpful and unconstructive,” the official said.

Speaking at the Defence Department’s daily press briefing, Pentagon Press Secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder said the North American Aerospace Defense Command “continues to monitor” the balloon “closely”.

“While we won't get into specifics in regards to the exact location, I can tell you that the balloon continues to move eastward and is currently over the centre of the continental United States. Again, we currently assess that the balloon does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground at this time, and will continue to review excuse me continue to monitor and review options,” he said.

He added that the airship is able to manoevre on its’ own, and is currently at an altitiude of roughly 60,000 feet, which he described as “well above the range of civilian air traffic”.

The Pentagon spokesperson declined to say whether the US would eventually shoot down the balloon and would not say whether the president was ever close to ordering it shot down. But he said the decision not to immediately bring down their airship stemmed from consideration of its’ size, the size of its’ payload, and the potential impact to life and property on the ground.

“Out of an abundance of caution, cognizant of the potential impact to civilians on the ground from a debris field, right now we're going to continue to monitor and review options,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Chinese government admitted on Friday that Beijing is responsible for the balloon, which he claimed was a “civilian airship” meant for climate research. But Gen Ryder stressed that the US has determined that the Chinese explanation of the airship’s purpose was not truthful and repeatedly called it a surveillance craft.

Speaking aboard Air Force One later on Friday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Mr Biden was briefed on the balloon three days ago, but after consulting with Pentagon officials decided not to order it shot down because of the possibility that debris from the airship, which is as large as several commercial busses, would harm Americans on the ground.

“It was the strong recommendation by Secretary Austin, Chairman Milley, [and] the commander of Northern Command not to take kinetic action because of the risks to safety and security of the people on the ground,” Ms Jean-Pierre said. “President Biden took that recommendation from the military seriously...the president will always put the safety [and] the security of the American people first”.

The White House spokesperson added that Mr Biden was on board with Mr Blinken’s decision not to go through with his previously-planned travel to Beijing at this time.

“The President agrees with the secretary's decision to not go on this trip. And it was a consensus that it was not appropriate to travel to the People's Republic of China at this time. We know that the PRC issued a statement of regret but the presence of this balloon in our airspace, it is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law, and it is unacceptable,” she said.

With additional reporting by agencies

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