USA suspends Blinken's visit to Beijing after detecting a Chinese balloon in its airspace | International
The Secretary of State of the United States, Antony Blinken, has suspended the planned visit to China for this Sunday after the Pentagon identified a Chinese balloon over US airspace, as confirmed by a senior government official in Washington. The Department of Defense considers that the device fulfilled espionage functions, something that Beijing has denied. China, which has apologized for the incident and has acknowledged that the device belongs to it, assures that it is a mere weather balloon that was blown by the wind and lost its way.
Blinken's visit was to be the first by a US secretary of state to Beijing since 2018, and was aimed at reducing friction between the two powers, whose relations have become increasingly tense as the power of China has been growing. The suspension threatens to roll back a timid détente process that had begun in November, when the presidents of both countries, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, met in Bali (Indonesia).
“We have taken note of China's apologetic statements, but the presence of this balloon in our airspace represents a clear violation of our sovereignty and International Law. It is unacceptable that this has happened," said a senior State Department official. "After consulting with other departments and with Congress, we have concluded that the conditions are not present at this time for Secretary Blinken to travel to China," he added. At the moment, no new date has been set for the visit of the head of US diplomacy to Beijing, according to the senior official.
18 kilometers high
The Pentagon insists that the balloon, which flies at a height of about 18 kilometers, performs espionage functions, despite what Beijing maintains. “It has surveillance equipment. Under it, it carries a basket – to speak in terms that everyone understands – with a large load, with a surveillance component, ”said the US Defense spokesman, General Pat Ryder, at a press conference.
Defense reported late Thursday that it had detected the presence of the weather balloon at a high altitude, higher than that of commercial flights, while flying over Montana, in the northwest of the country. That State hosts one of the military bases where the US intercontinental nuclear missiles are housed. The military commanders considered the demolition of the device, for which the flights were canceled at the airport in the city of Billings, in Montana, and military aircraft, including F-22 fighters, were sent to the area. Ultimately, the idea was dropped due to the risks posed by the operation, including the possibility of fragments of the device hitting people on the ground.
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Military commanders have stressed that the device does not have technology that would allow it to collect more intelligence data than China could obtain by other means, including its low-orbiting satellites. Nor does it represent a threat to the population. This Friday, the balloon had changed its trajectory, leaving Montana behind and floating in the central United States, heading east, Ryder has confirmed.
In Beijing, the Foreign Ministry explained in a statement that the aircraft deviated "much from its intended course" after it was "affected by westerly winds and with limited self-steering ability." "The Chinese side regrets the involuntary entry of the aircraft into US airspace due to force majeure," the statement added.
It is not the first time that the Pentagon has detected a balloon of this type in recent years, according to its spokesman. "What is different in this case is the duration of its presence," according to Ryder, who has pointed out that the device will continue to fly over United States territory "for a few days." “We will continue to monitor it and study options,” he stressed. He did not want to specify if, in the event that its trajectory took the balloon to Washington, the capital, the Department of Defense would consider shooting it down again.
Both Washington and Beijing have indicated that they are in contact about the incident. Blinken spoke with State Councilor Wang Yi (former Foreign Minister, and whose current position places him at the forefront of Chinese foreign policy, above the current minister, Qin Gang) to explain that he was canceling his trip for the moment, but that his intention is to resume it in the future.
Blinken's visit, highly anticipated in both countries and planned for Sunday and Monday, was to serve to try to find common ground between the rival powers. The two governments are at odds in areas ranging from the human rights situation in China, especially in Hong Kong and among the Uyghur minority, to pressure on Taiwan, the self-governing island ideologically close to Washington and which Beijing considers part of its territory.
Added to this are disagreements in the commercial area, where the mutual increases in tariffs imposed during the Donald Trump era continue, and in the technological field. The United States continues to impose limits on the use of its technology by Chinese companies: to the veto issued in October, which prevents the transfer of semiconductor equipment or technology to these companies, it is proposed to add a ban on sales of all types of material to the Chinese giant Huawei.
Tensions reached a boil in August, when a visit to Taiwan by then-Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, sparked the fury of Beijing, which retaliated with unprecedented military maneuvers involving live ammunition in waters close to those of the island.
But since Beijing renewed Xi Jinping's term for at least five more years at his Communist party's five-year congress in October, positions appear to have softened, at least relatively. While friction persists, both powers insist on the need to maintain channels of communication and channels of cooperation in areas in which it is convenient for them to cooperate, such as climate change or global public health.
The meeting between Biden and Xi in Bali, the first between the two presidents since the American's arrival at the White House, produced several measures of détente, including the agreement for Blinken's visit. After his appointment as foreign minister, Qin Gang, until then ambassador of his country in Washington, has underlined his desire for understanding.
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