Blinken postpones China trip as suspected spy balloon detected over U.S.

Blinken postpones China trip as suspected spy balloon detected over U.S.

The Washington Post reports:

It is unclear if the balloon is following a predetermined path to loiter in certain places or is controlled directly by Chinese operators.

“It is maneuverable, and I’ll just leave it at that,” Pentagon spokesman Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters Friday, adding that it’s expected to continue its path over the United States “for a few days.” Within the past day, the airship moved over Montana, which is home to sensitive military installations including missile silos.

Some top Republicans, including former president Donald Trump, on Friday called for the Biden administration to shoot the balloon down, though Ryder said the Pentagon has chosen to monitor it instead, as it doesn’t pose an immediate risk.

“It is possible the Defense Department is looking for an opportunity to recover part of the balloon intact, which could potentially yield valuable intelligence about China’s long-range reconnaissance systems,” said Craig Singleton, a senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

“They serve as very low-cost platforms that can be quickly deployed to collect intelligence and augment existing surveillance networks. Some can even reportedly detect hypersonic weapons,” he said.

China’s Foreign Ministry called for “cool-heads” over the incident, while state media overnight criticized U.S. media for “hyping” the incident in relation to the Blinken trip.

“It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes. Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course,” read the Foreign Ministry’s statement.

The incident has also caused friction between China and Canada, which the balloon passed over on its route to the United States. A spokesperson from the North American Aerospace Defense Command confirmed Friday that Canada is tracking another high-altitude balloon that is also believed to be Chinese.

Chinese surveillance balloons have been sighted “multiple times over the last five years” in the Pacific, including near Hawaii, said one U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity. In February of last year, for instance, one such balloon was spotted in the vicinity of Hawaii, the official said. “What they’re doing is not new,” the official said.

Taiwanese media raised similar alarms last year when a Chinese military unit launched groups of balloons over the island during a period of heightened security after the outbreak of war in Ukraine last February. Taiwanese defense officials at the time said they would step up patrols but that the craft posed no immediate security threat.

No decision has been made yet on when a possible rescheduled trip by Blinken could occur.

“There’s all this hopeful happy talk outside of government about the U.S. and China restoring guardrails,” said Christopher B. Johnstone, a former Biden White House aide on East Asia issues and a former CIA officer. “But there’s clearly deep pessimism inside the government about how far they can get if they’re willing to pull down this visit over a balloon,”

Laurence Pfeiffer, a former CIA chief of staff, said the administration would be rewarding China’s bad behavior if Blinken went ahead with the trip. “The Republicans would eat them alive.” [Continue reading…]

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