Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed a planned high-stakes weekend diplomatic trip to China as the Biden administration weighs a broader response to the discovery of a high-altitude Chinese balloon flying over sensitive sites in the western United States, two diplomatic sources tell CBS News.
The decision came despite China’s claim that the balloon was a weather research satellite that had blown off course. The U.S. has described it as a surveillance satellite.
The trip was called off just hours before Blinken was due to depart Washington for Beijing and heightened the strain on U.S.-Chinese relations. On Friday morning, Blinken told his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, that the trip would need to be postponed, but he intends to visit at a future date.
By Friday morning, the balloon was no longer over Montana but had moved over the Midwest, according to a U.S. official. It’s not going to run out of fuel, since it has solar panels. The official also said that the balloon steers by rudder and is corkscrewing around to slow its progress over land, but the jet stream continues to move it on a trajectory across the U.S. The Pentagon is still considering ways to “dispose” of it but has “grave concerns” about the damage it would cause if it fell to earth. U.S. government lawyers regard this as a violation of U.S. air space.
Blinken’s long-anticipated meetings with senior Chinese officials had been seen in both countries as a way to find some areas of common ground amid major disagreements over Taiwan, human rights, China’s claims in the South China Sea, North Korea, Russia’s war in Ukraine, trade policy and climate change.
Although the trip, which was agreed to in November by Mr. Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a summit in Indonesia, had not been formally announced, officials in both Beijing and Washington had been talking in recent days about Blinken’s imminent arrival. In November, Mr. Biden and Xi discussed maintaining “open lines of communication” amid increasing tensions between the countries. Mr. Biden has described the U.S. relationship with China as one of strategic competition.
The meetings were to begin on Sunday and go through Monday.
The discovery of the balloon was announced on Thursday by Pentagon officials who said one of the places where it was spotted was over the state of Montana, which is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
A senior defense official said the U.S. prepared fighter jets, including F-22s, to shoot down the balloon, if ordered. The Pentagon ultimately recommended against it, noting that even though the balloon was over a sparsely populated area of Montana, its size would create a debris field large enough to put people at risk.
China, which angrily denounces surveillance attempts by the U.S. and others over areas it considers to be its territory and once forced down an American spy plane, offered a generally muted reaction to the Pentagon announcement.
In a relatively conciliatory statement, the Chinese foreign ministry said late Friday that the balloon was a civilian airship used mainly for meteorological research. The ministry said the airship has limited “self-steering” capabilities and “deviated far from its planned course” because of winds.
“The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure,” the statement said, citing a legal term used to refer to events beyond one’s control.
The balloon incident also comes as government officials throughout the U.S. are cracking down on TikTok — a hugely popular social media app owned by Chinese company ByteDance — over fears of spying.
China has also conducted large-scale military drills after U.S. lawmakers, including then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, visited Taiwan last year. The Chinese government has opposed any action it sees as getting in the way of its efforts to reunify the self-governing island.
And the House of Representatives recently established a new committee on China, focusing on its competition with the U.S. and international influence.
David Martin, Margaret Brennan, Christina Ruffini, Caitlin Yilek and Kathryn Watson contributed to this report.