China’s Defense Ministry acknowledged Thursday it refused to accept a phone call from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin following the shootdown of a surveillance balloon over the Atlantic last week.
People’s Liberation Army Sr. Col. Tan Kefei, the spokesman, said in a statement carried by the official Xinhua news agency that the use of force against what the Chinese insist was a civilian weather balloon led to the decision to turn down the call.
“Given that the U.S. side’s irresponsible and erroneous move has failed to create a proper atmosphere for dialogue and exchanges between the two militaries, China did not accept the U.S. proposal for a phone call between the two defense chiefs,” Col. Tan stated.
The Pentagon disclosed earlier this week that Mr. Austin sought to contact his Chinese counterpart, Defense Minister Wei Fenghe, immediately after a U.S. F-22 fired a missile that blew up the high-altitude surveillance balloon off the South Carolina coast.
“Unfortunately, the PRC has declined our request,” the Pentagon said in a statement, using the acronym for People’s Republic of China. “Our commitment to open lines of communication will continue.”
China called the use of force excessive and a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman earlier expressed regret over what Beijing said was a weather balloon that had been blown off course.
A second surveillance balloon was spotted over Latin America and Chinese officials also said that balloon was another civilian craft that had gone off course.
The incident is likely to fuel criticisms in the U.S. that the Pentagon’s decade’s long program to seek to build trust with the PLA is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of the Chinese military. Unlike the U.S. military, the PLA is not a national army but one devoted primarily to defending the interests of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Col. Tan, the ministry spokesman, said the United States used force to attack a civilian unmanned airship and “seriously violated international practices and set a very bad precedent.
Earlier Thursday, a senior State Department official said in a statement to reporters that the Chinese high-altitude balloon surveillance program is part of the PLA.
“We know the PRC has overflown these surveillance balloons over more than 40 countries across 5 continents,” the statement.”
Flights by US U-2 surveillance aircraft of the balloon over the United States revealed the craft was “capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations.”
China had deployed a fleet of the balloons for surveillance operations that “are often undertaken at the direction of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA),” the official said. The private company that made the balloon is also directly linked to the PLA, based on information from an official Chinese procurement portal for the PLA.
“The United States sent a clear message to the PRC that its violation of our sovereignty was unacceptable by shooting down the balloon, protecting our own sensitive intelligence, and maximizing our ability to track the balloon and recover the payload to get more information on the PRC’s program,” the statement said.
The statement noted Chinese propaganda has had a difficult time explaining the balloon intrusion, stating first that the balloon was not Chinese and then claiming the balloon was a civilian aircraft.
“From the PRC’s messaging and public comments, it’s clear that they have been scrambling to explain why they violated U.S. sovereignty and still have no plausible explanation – and have found themselves on their heels,” the State Department said.
“They also have no explanation for why they violated the airspace of Central and South American countries. The PRC’s program will only continue to be exposed, making it harder for the PRC to use this program.”