Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed a diplomatic trip to China this weekend as the Biden Administration weighs a broader response to the discovery of a high-altitude Chinese balloon flying over sensitive sites in the western U.S., officials said Friday.
The decision came despite China’s claim that the balloon was a weather research “airship” that had blown off course.
Pentagon officials said Thursday they were tracking what they had “very high confidence” was a Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon over the continental U.S. It was spotted in places like Montana, which is home to one of the nation’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
The Pentagon said it had decided not to shoot down the balloon due to the risk of injuring people on the ground.
A senior defense official, who did not address whether the U.S. accepted China’s claim that it may have been a weather balloon instead of a surveillance one, said the seriousness of the violation of U.S. airspace, sovereignty and international law was such that Blinken’s trip could not go forward as planned.
The Blinken trip was meant to follow up on meetings President Biden had with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali late last year, and some foreign policy analysts have speculated that the balloon was meant to send a “signal” to Washington ahead of Blinken’s arrival rather than “severely inflaming tensions.”
President Biden declined to comment when questioned about this situation by reporters following a speech on the economy Friday.
One senior American defense official who spoke to reporters Thursday on condition of anonymity said the U.S. has assessed that the balloon has “limited” value in terms of providing intelligence that couldn’t be obtained by other technologies, such as spy satellites.