(Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a visit to China that had been expected to start on Friday after a suspected Chinese spy balloon was tracked flying across the United States in what Washington called a “clear violation” of U.S. sovereignty.
Military leaders considered shooting down the high-altitude surveillance balloon on Wednesday but eventually recommended against this to President Joe Biden because of the safety risk from debris, officials said. The Pentagon said on Friday that another Chinese balloon was observed over Latin America, without saying where exactly.
“We are seeing reports of a balloon transiting Latin America. We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said.
White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden was briefed on Tuesday about the balloon flight over the United States and there was an administration “consensus that it was not appropriate to travel to the People’s Republic of China at this time.” China expressed regret that an “airship” used for civilian meteorological and other scientific purposes had strayed into U.S. airspace.
Jean-Pierre said the U.S. administration was aware of China’s statement “but the presence of this balloon in our airspace, it is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law. It is unacceptable this occurred.”
On Friday, Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, said the balloon had changed course and was floating eastward at about 60,000 feet (18,300 meters) above the central United States and demonstrating a capability to maneuver. He said it would likely be over the country for a few more days. Commercial forecaster AccuWeather said the balloon would potentially leave the United States and move over the Atlantic on Saturday evening. Mike Rounds, a Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Fox News it would be good to recover the balloon “one way or another” to see “if it was designed to actually collect data or if it was designed to test our response capabilities.”
The Pentagon’s disclosure about the balloon’s maneuverability directly challenges China’s assertion about it being blown off course.
At a news conference with South Korea’s visiting foreign minister on Friday, Blinken said he had told Wang Yi, director of China’s Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, that the incident on the eve of his trip was an “irresponsible act” by China, but Washington remained committed to engagement and he would visit when conditions allowed.
Blinken said he would not put a date on when he might go to China and the focus was on resolving the current incident. “The first step is … getting the surveillance asset out of our air space,” he said, adding that Washington would maintain open lines of communication with China.
The Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, said the balloon should never have been allowed in U.S. airspace and could have been shot down over water. “I am calling on the Biden administration to quickly take steps to remove the Chinese spy balloon from U.S. airspace,” he said in a statement.