The discovery of the first balloon alarmed US officials and prompted widespread calls to immediately shoot the balloon down, including from former US president Donald Trump, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former UN ambassador Nikki Haley and far-right Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles, who was in Washington on Friday (US time) to discuss the AUKUS pact with US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, also weighed in, noting that the matter had raised “a lot of questions” and “we’ll await those answers from China”.
China had insisted that the balloon was not being used for surveillance, claiming it was simply a weather research “airship” that had blown off course.
“It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes,” a Chinese ministry spokesperson said in a statement.
“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 US airspace due to force majeure.”
However, the US has rejected this explanation, noting that the balloon had been floating over sensitive military sites in Montana, a western US state that has about 150 intercontinental ballistic missile silos, before moving eastward over central US.
In a briefing at the Pentagon on Friday (US time) Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said the balloon, which is about the size of two buses, had “violated US airspace and international law, which is unacceptable.”
Ryder said the government had been tracking the balloon for several days, adding it was “travelling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.”
“We assess that it does not pose a risk to people on the ground as it currently is traversing the continental United States. And so, out of an abundance of caution, cognisant 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,” Ryder said.
However, Republican Congressman Mike Gallagher, who chairs the Select Committee on China in the US Congress, accused the Biden administration of being soft.
In view of the fact that the balloon had been detected days ago, he added that it was “embarrassing and unfathomable” that the balloon had not been shot down sooner.
“If this were an American asset over Chinese airspace, do you think they’d hesitate for one second to shoot that down?” he said.
“They’re testing us. They’re mocking us. They’re trying to embarrass us and of course they’re trying to collect as much sensitive intelligence as possible from us. So, the responses I’ve seen thus far from the administration raise more questions than they answer.”
US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said in a tweet that “China’s brazen disregard for US sovereignty is a destabilising action that must be addressed.” He has requested a briefing with the so-called Gang of Eight – a reference to the eight leaders within the US Congress who are briefed on classified intelligence matters.
Blinken’s trip would have made him the first US Secretary of State to sit down with Xi Jinping in nearly six years and the first of Biden’s cabinet secretaries to visit China. It was meant to be a significant diplomatic moment, following up on Biden’s meeting with the Chinese President last year. A number of sensitive issues were on the agenda, including Taiwan and China’s relationship with Russia as the war in Ukraine continues.
However, 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”.
“Any country that has its airspace violated in this way I think would respond similarly,” Blinken later said at a press conference. “And I can only imagine what the reaction would be in China if they were on the other end.”
He said he was open to rescheduling his visit “an appropriate time” but the priority for now was to get the balloon out of American skies.
“In the meantime, the United States will continue to maintain open lines of communication with China, including to address this ongoing incident,” he said.
“Indeed, that’s why we need direct and regular communications in the first place. And that’s why it’s critical that such lines remain open at all times, to help avoid miscalculation, and conflict.”
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