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US postpones Blinken’s China trip over spy balloon

By Yashwant Raj
Washington, Feb 3 (IANS) The United States has postponed Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s upcoming visit to Beijing over a Chinese surveillance balloon floating over America, calling it a “clear and unacceptable violation of national sovereignty (of the United States) and international laws”.

A senior state department official told reporters on a hurriedly convened news conference on Friday that the US has taken note of the Chinese statement of regret and stressed that the visit has only been postponed, and not cancelled, and the Secretary of State intends to visit China at the earliest opportunity when conditions are more conducive.

Blinken was scheduled to leave for China later on Friday for wide-ranging talks in the follow-up to the first in-person summit between President Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping in Bali on the sidelines of the last G-20 summit.

The US said on Thursday that it was closely monitoring a Chinese spy balloon that is said to be the size of three passenger buses wafting across the sky and had considered shooting it down, but hesitated so far fearing falling debris on civilian populations underneath.

This is not the first such sighting. It has happened before, but the US defence department said this is the longest Chinese spy balloon which has been seen hovering over the country. And it came as Blinken was preparing to visit China, while President Biden is slated to delver his first State of the Union speech in a Republican-led House of Representatives.

The state department official said these sightings might have happened before but this was the first time it took place on the eve of the Secretary of State’s visit to China.

India will be following this spy balloon’s flight as well for insights and lessons given its own border challenges with China, whose military has provoked a string of skirmishes along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in recent years, the last of them took place in December 2022, and with increasing frequency.

“The US government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now,” Pentagon Press Secretary and Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder said during an impromptu briefing on Thursday evening.

“The US government, to include NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), continues to track and monitor it closely,” he said.

But the balloon poses no threat to commercial air traffic as it’s positioned way above that height, Ruder said.

President Biden has been briefed about the matter, according to news reports.

A senior defence official who briefed reporters on the background that the US intelligence community has “very high confidence” the balloon belongs to China and the US has engaged China on it “with urgency, through multiple channels”.

The US is weighing options on how to deal with the balloon but for now, the official said, it’s been decided at the highest level in the US military — Chairman of joint chiefs of staff Mark Milley — to let it float overhead, rather than to shoot it down. The key concern being the safety of civilians down below.

“We did assess that it was large enough to cause damage from the debris field if we downed it over an area,” the official said, adding, “I can’t really go into the dimension but there have been reports of pilots seeing this thing, even though it’s pretty high up in the sky. So… it’s sizable.”

But the US is largely leery about the mission of this spy mission.

“Currently, we assess that this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collective collection perspective. But we are taking steps, nevertheless, to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information,” the official said.