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Chinese ‘spy balloon’ may remain in US skies for a while; Blinken cancels trip

The alleged Chinese spy balloon, which has been spotted over the United States, will likely remain in its skies for a few days, the Pentagon said on Friday (February 3).

The balloon is as large as three buses put together and caries a significant number of payloads, the Pentagon has said, asserting that it has surveillance capabilities.

China, which had earlier said it had no intention of “violating the territory and airspace of any sovereign country,” clarified later that it was an “airship” meant for civilian meteorological and other scientific purposes. In a statement late on Friday, China’s foreign ministry expressed regret that the balloon had strayed into US airspace.

“No military or physical threat”

However, an angry US has cancelled the Beijing trip of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was scheduled to leave for China on Friday night. It would have been the first visit of a top American diplomat to China in several years.

Also read: China says it is looking into report of spy balloon in US airspace

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the US has noted the Chinese statement of regret. “But the presence of this balloon in our airspace, it is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law, and it is unacceptable that this occurred,” she said.

Both the White House and the Pentagon said that it does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground. “President (Joe) Biden was briefed. He has asked the military to present options. It was the strong recommendation by (Defence) Secretary (Lloyd) Austin, Chairman Milley, the commander of Northern Command not to take kinetic action because of the risk to safety and security of the people on the ground,” Jean-Pierre said.

“Large payload”

Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters at the Department of Defence said the surveillance balloon has manoeuvrability capabilities. “It’s got a large payload underneath the surveillance component, underneath the actual balloon piece of it,” Ryder said. “Right now, it’s moving eastward across the United States, currently over about the central United States,” he said.

“We will continue to monitor it. Right now, we assess that it’ll probably be over the United States for a few days, but we’ll continue to review our options and keep you updated as we can,” he said.

Also read: Chinese spy balloon spotted over US airspace

“We do know that it is a surveillance balloon. In terms of the size, I’m not able to get into the specifics other than to say that it is big enough that, again, in reviewing our approach, we do recognise that any potential debris field would be significant and potentially cause civilian injuries or deaths or significant property damage,” Ryder said.

Blinken cancels trip

Earlier in the day, in a phone call with the Chinese counterpart, Blinken told Director of the CCP Central Foreign Affairs Office Wang Yi that he would not be travelling to China considering the presence of a high-altitude surveillance balloon in US airspace.

Blinken relayed that he had planned to visit Beijing to follow up on the agenda agreed to by President Biden and President Xi in November in Bali. He noted China’s statement of regret but conveyed that this was an irresponsible act and a clear violation of US sovereignty and international law that undermined the purpose of the trip, State Department Spokesperson said in a read-out of the call.

“The Secretary explained that in light of this ongoing issue, it would not be appropriate to visit Beijing at this time. He underscored that the United States is committed to diplomatic engagement and maintaining open lines of communication, and that he would be prepared to visit Beijing as soon as conditions allow,” Price said.

(With agency inputs)

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