Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday abruptly postponed a long-planned weekend fence-mending trip to China after the Pentagon announced it was tracking a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon in airspace over sensitive sites in the Western U.S.
The postponement was the latest blow to efforts by both sides to ease tension following a meeting by President Biden with Chinese President Xi Jinping at a summit in Indonesia in November.
The two-day meeting was slated to begin Sunday but never was officially confirmed on Mr. Blinken’s schedule.
The two sides have clashed repeatedly over economic, human rights and security issues in recent months, with the U.S. imposing new restrictions on high-tech computer chip sales to China and the Chinese increasing military activity targeting Taiwan.
A Pentagon briefing Thursday evening about the surveillance balloon ignited a firestorm of concern on Capitol Hill. U.S. officials said they discussed deploying F-22s to shoot down the balloon, but decided against it in part because of the danger that debris might pose for those on the ground.
China‘s Foreign Ministry, in a relatively conciliatory message, on Friday confirmed the craft was from China, but said the balloon was not engaged in espionage and was collecting meteorological data and had been blown off course by “westerly winds.”
“The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure,” the statement said, citing a legal term used to refer to events beyond one’s control.
China‘s nationalistic press said the Biden administration was engaged in “another stunt” designed to exacerbate tension as anti-Beijing sentiment soars in Washington.
Major questions remain about the incident. The Pentagon said a major concern was that the balloon was spotted at one point over parts of Montana, which is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
A Pentagon statement also said the balloon mission was not the first of its kind and U.S. officials had assessed it had “limited” intelligence value compared with more sophisticated satellites in orbit.
Canadian defense officials also scrambled after detecting the Chinese balloon this week, officials in Ottawa said, and were monitoring a “potential second incident as well.”
China‘s ambassador to Canada was summoned to explain the intrusions, Canada’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“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,” the statement read in part.
Beijing on Friday appeared anxious to contain the fallout from the incident.
“China is a responsible country,” Mao Ning, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said in a press briefing Friday in Beijing before Mr. Blinken’s announcement. “It has always strictly abided by international law and has no intention of violating the territory and airspace of any sovereign country. … We are learning about the verification situation and hope that both sides can handle it calmly and cautiously.”