WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday scrapped a rare Beijing trip aimed at easing escalating tensions between the two global powers, after the Pentagon said that China flew a spy balloon over the United States, reports AFP.
Moments before the decision, China issued a rare statement of regret and blamed winds for blowing over what it called a civilian airship.
With the rival Republican Party already on the offensive, Blinken postponed his two-day visit that would have started Sunday.
In a telephone call with senior Chinese leader Wang Yi, Blinken noted Beijing's regret but conveyed that this is an irresponsible act and a clear violation of US sovereignty and international law that undermined the purpose of the trip, a State Department statement said.
Blinken 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.
A senior US official said that had Blinken gone ahead, the incident would have significantly narrowed the agenda that we would have been able to address. Blinken would have been the first top US diplomat to visit China since October 2018, signaling a thaw following intense friction under former president Donald Trump.
Last month, Blinken said he would use the trip to help establish guardrails to prevent the relationship from escalating into all-out conflict.
Shoot down the balloon! added Donald Trump on his Truth Social media platform.
The Pentagon said Friday the balloon was heading eastwards over the central United States, adding it was not being shot down for safety reasons.
After initial hesitation, Beijing admitted ownership of the airship and said it veered off course due to wind.
The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes, said the statement attributed to a foreign ministry spokesperson.
The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure, it said, using the legal term for an act outside of human control.
The Chinese side will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation.
A US defense official said earlier that Biden had asked for military options but that the Pentagon believed shooting the object down would put people on the ground at risk from debris.
The balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective, the defense official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
The United States is also widely believed to spy on China, although generally with more advanced technology than balloons.
The northwestern United States is home to sensitive airbases and nuclear weapons in underground silos.
Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder said Friday that the balloon was traveling at 60,000 feet (18,000 meters) -- far above the altitude used by commercial aircraft.
We know that it's a surveillance balloon, he said. We're monitoring and reviewing options.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who was visiting the Philippines, held discussions with top Pentagon officials after the balloon was detected.
In the Philippines, Austin this week agreed to expand the US military presence, weeks after a separate troop deal with another regional ally, Japan.
The US military moves show that the United States is preparing for potential conflict over Taiwan, the self-governing democracy China claims as its own, despite diplomatic efforts.
Biden held a surprisingly cordial meeting in November with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a summit in Bali, where they agreed to send Blinken to Beijing.
A US military officer recently told his forces to be ready for war with China.
I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me we will fight in 2025, Air Mobility Command chief General Mike Minihan wrote in a memo, saying that US elections in 2024 would also offer Xi a distracted America.