The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

Hours before the secretary of state was scheduled to depart for Beijing, the diplomatic visit was called off

Bystanders captured video on Feb. 1 and Feb. 2 of a suspected spy balloon floating over Montana. U.S. officials say the Pentagon has been monitoring the craft. (Video: The Washington Post)
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President Biden postponed his top diplomat’s first official trip to China on Friday in response to the Pentagon’s discovery of an alleged Chinese spy balloon flying over the continental United States, said a U.S. official familiar with the matter.

The decision came just hours before Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to depart for Beijing — in a dramatic indication of how seriously the Biden administration takes the incident and wants to avoid appearing soft on China.

Blinken told China’s foreign affairs chief Wang Yi that the presence of a “surveillance balloon” in U.S. airspace amounted to an “irresponsible act” and a “clear violation of U.S. sovereignty,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price on Friday.

He said the incident “undermined” the purpose of the trip, and that “in light of this ongoing issue, it would not be appropriate to visit Beijing at this time.” Price said Blinken would be prepared to visit Beijing “as soon as conditions allow.”

When pressed why the administration called off the trip, given the view of U.S. defense officials that the Chinese balloon was not able to collect significant intelligence, a State Department official said the incident “would have significantly narrowed the agenda” of the trip.

Beijing on Friday acknowledged the balloon originated in China, but said it was a meteorological aircraft that was blown off course — claims that have been rejected by Blinken and the Pentagon.

U.S. officials have said they do not think the balloon was able to gather information that couldn’t be acquired in other ways, namely by spy satellites. However the postponement of Blinken’s high-level trip following the incident highlights how tense relations are between Washington and Beijing at a time when both sides are trying to erect safeguards to stave off fresh conflict.

Danny Russel, a vice president at the Asia Society and a former U.S. diplomat, said the Biden administration’s decision to postpone the trip was “recognition that the incident would hijack the agenda, crowd out the strategic issues, and dominate the media coverage of the visit.”

“The incident has soured the atmosphere and hardened positions and there’s no guarantee the two sides can successfully resurrect the 'Bali’ momentum,” he said, referring to the meeting between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in November. “On the other hand, both sides are looking for ways to stabilize the relationship and reduce risk. So ideally, this incident can serve as a teachable moment.”

The discovery of the surveillance balloon also raises pressure on Biden, who has been sensitive to Republican criticisms that he is insufficiently tough on China, although on the issue of canceling the trip, Republicans were divided on the matter.

Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.) called on the administration to cancel the trip while House Speaker Kevin McCarthy demanded a “Gang of Eight” intelligence briefing from the president on the balloon. The “gang” is a panel of lawmakers including the top Republican and Democratic leadership in the House and Senate, plus the heads of each chamber’s intelligence committee.

Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee encouraged Blinken to use the trip to send a tough message to China regarding the suspected spy balloon. But U.S. officials appeared to be concerned about the optics of the visit in the wake of the incursion, even though experts said the incident, even if it were an act of espionage, was not remarkable.

“All countries, especially competitors like the United States and China, spy on each other. It’s a fact of international relations, and has been forever,” said Jacob Stokes, an expert at the Center for a New American Security and a former Obama administration official.

The Pentagon on Thursday said in a surprise announcement that the balloon was drifting over high-altitude U.S. airspace, and is being monitored but is not currently considered a threat to people on the ground. U.S. officials briefly considered shooting the balloon down but decided against it due to the threat of falling debris to people on the ground.

State Antony Blinken told reporters on Feb. 3 that the presence of a Chinese balloon in U.S. airspace was a “violation of U.S. sovereignty.” (Video: The Washington Post)

The airship first crossed into U.S. sovereign territory over the Aleutian Islands late last week, then drifted over mainland Alaska, down through Canada and crossed into the continental United States in the vicinity of northern Idaho and Montana, according to a U.S. defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

The official said it stopped to loiter near sensitive sites, such as Malmstrom Air Force Base, undercutting Chinese assertions that the balloon is a wayward device. Military officials track airborne materials in such circumstances, called “derelict objects,” and have a checklist to determine if something like a weather balloon is adrift.

The Chinese balloon is not that, the official said. “When it stops drifting, it’s a different conversation,” the official added. The balloon is about the size of two to three buses, the person added, with sensors and other equipment carried underneath. 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.”

There is precedent for Beijing claiming that military projects are civilian research, including a 2021 hypersonic missile test, which the Foreign Ministry said at the time was a routine test of reusable space vehicles.

“Presenting it this way is probably intended to reduce scope for it to be an issue when Xi meets Blinken, but it is unlikely to be deemed credible by Blinken,” said Professor Steve Tsang, the director of the China Institute at the SOAS University of London.

Ellen Nakashima, Dan Lamothe, Alex Horton and Meaghan Tobin contributed to this report.

More on the flying objects shot down over U.S., Canada

The latest: U.S. fighter jets have shot four objects out of the sky over North America this month. The first object, a balloon shot down off the South Carolina coast, was Chinese. Biden said Thursday the three other objects did not so far appear to have connections to foreign surveillance programs.

The first balloon: The first object was linked by the U.S. intelligence community to a vast surveillance program run by the People’s Liberation Army. Here’s a timeline of the balloon’s journey across the United States and photos of the recovery.

The response from China: China’s Foreign Ministry said the U.S. has sent at least 10 unsanctioned balloons into Chinese airspace since last year. China accused the United States of an “overreaction” and reiterated claims that the airship was a civilian vessel that drifted off course.

Why use a spy balloon? Spy balloons “offer a few advantages over the use of satellites or drones,” James Rogers, an academic at Cornell, tells us. The Defense Department told Congress that similar surveillance balloons had been spotted in U.S. airspace before, and a top U.S. general said past incursions by Chinese balloons went undetected by the Pentagon.