Blinken calls off China visit as spy balloon drama continues : NPR

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A high altitude balloon floats over Billings, Mont., on Wednesday. The United States is tracking a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that was spotted over US airspace.

Larry Mayer/AP

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Larry Mayer/AP

A high altitude balloon floats over Billings, Mont., on Wednesday. The United States is tracking a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that was spotted over US airspace.

Larry Mayer/AP

The US State Department says Secretary Antony Blinken has postponed his trip to Beijing amid concerns about a Chinese surveillance balloon flying over US airspace.

The Pentagon said Thursday it had “very high confidence” that the high-altitude surveillance balloon came from China and was being used to gather information from sensitive sites.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China confirmed on Friday that the balloon is theirs, but called it a “civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological purposes,” that had gone off course by accident.

“Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course,” he said in a statement. “The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure. The Chinese side will continue to communicate with the US side and properly deal with this unexpected situation caused by force majeure.

US defense officials believe it does not pose a “military or physical threat to people on the ground,” as NORAD and the US Northern Command he said in a statement on Thursdayand recommended against shooting.

Mao Ning, the spokesman of the Chinese foreign ministry, he previously told reporters that China has “no intention of violating the territory or airspace of any sovereign country” and urged people to remain calm and avoid speculation until all the facts are clear .

Still, some Republican lawmakers – including the Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy and Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke — are accusing China of provoking the United States and asking the United States to address it.

The incident comes at a time of strain for US-China relations, with US national security concerns ranging from TikTok to Taiwan and just before Blinken was due to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing as part of an effort to diffuse those tensions.

The trip followed President Biden’s meeting with Xi in Bali in November. Blinken was due to leave on Friday, and would have been the first Cabinet secretary of the Biden administration to visit China.

Here’s what else we know so far.

What is a surveillance bubble?

These large balloons carry cameras or other equipment and float above a given area, usually at an altitude of about 80,000 to 120,000 feet, The Guardian reports. In contrast, commercial airplanes generally fly at about 35,000 feet.

Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said the balloon is currently traveling at an altitude much higher than commercial air traffic.”

the National Parks Service says that the use of spy balloons in the United States dates back to the Civil War, when both sides used hot air balloons (usually tethered to the ground and reaching about 1,000 feet) to collect reconnaissance and direct the artillery towards the other.

The practice became more widespread during World War I and then during the Cold War, when the United States launched hundreds of balloons to gather intelligence about China and the Soviet Union, Bloomberg reports.

Surveillance balloons have been overshadowed by satellites and unmanned drones in recent decades, although they still offer certain advantages (for example, they are cheaper to launch and can perform long-term surveillance missions). A politician reported last year that the Pentagon was expanding investment in high-altitude balloon projects.

What are you looking for?

US officials said Thursday that the United States had been tracking the balloon since it entered US airspace a few days ago. They did not specify the exact timeline or its passage except to confirm that it floated over Montana at one point (the white circle is so large that people could see it from the ground).

The United States officials said in general that she was flying over sensitive sites to gather information.

Montana is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo areas at Malmstrom Air Force Base, which may be of interest, NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre told All Things Considered .

“The United States and China are always trying to gather intelligence on each other, but usually not in such a way that it is so obvious and almost certain to be discovered,” he added.

China’s foreign ministry did not name the surveillance in its statement, simply describing the object as a “civilian airship used for research purposes, mainly meteorological.”

Why didn’t they shoot the US?

A senior defense official told reporters Thursday that the United States had prepared fighter jets to shoot down the balloon if ordered, but that the Pentagon had recommended against it, in part because of the risk of debris from such a balloon great can create for people on earth. .

“It doesn’t appear that this balloon is capable of gathering intelligence that is significantly beyond what can already be gathered by, say, satellites,” Myre added.

But, he said, the United States is using some of those fighter jets to “take a look” at the balloon in its efforts to continue monitoring it.

What happened in Canada?

Canada also says it is monitoring a high-altitude surveillance balloon, although it is not clear if it is the same one. The United States the officials said the tracking balloon flew over the Aleutian Islands and through Canada before it was spotted Wednesday over Billings, Montana.

“Canadians are safe and Canada is taking steps to ensure the safety of its airspace, including monitoring a potential second incident,” the Canadian Department of National Defense said in short statement on Thursday.

She added that she is in frequent contact with the United States as the situation develops.

“Canada’s intelligence agencies are working with American partners and continue to take all necessary measures to safeguard Canada’s sensitive information from foreign intelligence threats,” she said.

Have we seen this kind of thing before?

The Pentagon said similar balloon activity has been seen a few times in recent years.

A defense official “wouldn’t characterize this as revolutionary,” Myre reports, adding that what appears to be different this time is the balloon’s altitude and the length of time it’s staying over the U.S. .

The US Naval Institute pointed to one not-so-recent memory on Thursday tweet in the evening: During World War II, the crew of the USS New York spotted a sphere in the sky that they suspected was a Japanese balloon. After several successful attempts to shoot it, they realized that they were actually shooting at Venus.

What was Blinken planning to do in China?

Tensions were already high this week, when the United States announced it would expand its presence in Southeast Asia with access to more bases in the Philippines – a move China said would threaten its -security in the region.

The bubble situation creates more friction between the countries and has given China hawks in the United States more material to seize, as NPR Beijing correspondent Emily Feng says. Morning Edition.

“The United States and China have been trying to stabilize their relationship, but this incident and the ongoing bipartisan efforts to increase sanctions on China come within the United States officials and former diplomats they tell Feng that it may result in a joint statement, perhaps on the fight against climate change or against the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, but no major breakthroughs are likely.

Anyway, they said that the fact that Blinken was visiting China was a sign of progress.

“There are some meaty issues at the heart of their relationship about human rights, the fight against climate change, technological competition,” says Feng. “So this involves getting China on board, even if the two countries don’t see eye to eye.”

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