The glimpse of a Chinese balloon in United States airspace has resulted in Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling off his high-stakes visit to Beijing which threatens to delay the much required diplomatic talks between the two countries.
Spy balloons are a historic technology and were widely utilized before the development of low-Earth and geosynchronous satellites. They are cheap to deploy, fly relatively close to their targets, and can continuously monitor a location for longer stints. The equipment attached to the balloons may include radar and be solar powered.
The Chinese balloon, first spotted earlier this week, was loitering over Montana home to Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile silos but posed no physical or intelligence threat, a senior Defense Department official said.
While the US alleges it is a “high-altitude surveillance” balloon, China has rejected the claims. In a statement late Friday, the Chinese foreign ministry said the balloon, roughly the size of three buses, was a “civilian airship” used mainly for “meteorological” research.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who postponed a trip that was to begin on Friday, said he would be prepared to visit Beijing “when conditions allow,” but the administration could be hard pressed to quickly revive the trip short of China offering up serious gestures of goodwill, policy analysts said.
“Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure,” BBC quoted China’s statement as saying.
Tensions between Washington and Beijing have been running high, with the Biden administration becoming more explicit about its willingness to defend Taiwan in the event of a conflict. The Chinese have for decades complained about the US surveillance by ships and spy planes near its territory, leading to occasional confrontations over the years. Meanwhile, the Pentagon said that a second balloon was hovering over Latin America. “We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Brigadier General Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement.
According to a report of Firstpost, Jude Blanchette, a China expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told BBC that she thinks the goal of the visit was to “basically fast-forward this Cold War to its détente phase, thereby skipping a Cuban Missile Crisis”.
“China’s brazen disregard for U.S. sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed, and President Biden cannot be silent,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, said in a tweet.