US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday scrapped a long-planned Beijing trip aimed at easing escalating tensions between the two superpowers, after the Pentagon said that China sent a spy balloon over the United States.
Moments before the decision, China issued a late-night statement voicing regret over what it called an accident with a civilian airship but the United States was not impressed.
Blinken, who has faced intense pressure over the trip from the rival Republican Party, decided to postpone his two-day visit starting Sunday, which would have been the first by a top US diplomat since October 2018, a US official said.
The official said the United States was “confident” of preserving communication with China despite Blinken’s cancellation, and that the visit would be rescheduled once conditions are “right.”
The Pentagon said Thursday it was tracking the balloon which flew far above the western state of Montana and decided for safety reasons not to shoot it down.
After initial hesitation, Beijing admitted ownership of the “airship” and said it veered off course due to the winds.
“The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes,” said the statement attributed to a foreign ministry spokesperson.
“The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure,” it said, using the legal term for an act outside of human control.
“The Chinese side will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation.”
Republican lawmakers quickly pounced on the incident, casting President Joe Biden — who has largely preserved and at times expanded his Republican predecessor Donald Trump’s hawkish policies on China — as weak.
“President Biden should stop coddling and appeasing the Chinese communists. Bring the balloon down now and exploit its tech package, which could be an intelligence bonanza,” tweeted Senator Tom Cotton, a prominent hardliner who had urged Blinken to call off his trip.