Furore Over Chinese Spy Balloon Leads to a Diplomatic Crisis


Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday cancelled a weekend trip to Beijing after a Chinese spy balloon was sighted above the Rocky Mountain state of Montana, igniting a frenzy of media coverage and political commentary over a machine that the Pentagon said posed no threat to the United States.

A high altitude balloon floats over Billings, Montana, on Feb. 1, 2023. (Larry Mayer/The Billings Gazette via AP)

Blinken called the Chinese surveillance an “irresponsible act” and a “clear violation of US sovereignty and international law”. China’s “decision to take this action on the eve of my planned visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have,” he said at a news conference Friday afternoon.

Blinken cancelled the trip after civilians in Montana this week began spotting the balloon, which the Pentagon said was an “intelligence-gathering” airship. Military officials had been monitoring the balloon for days, and Blinken and a deputy secretly confronted Chinese diplomats in Washington on Wednesday. But it became a diplomatic crisis only as media attention mounted on Thursday night and Republican politicians called for President Joe Biden and Blinken to act.

The balloon’s presence and Blinken’s announcement added to the rising tensions between the two superpowers. The situation also underscored the sensitive politics in the United States as both Democratic and Republican leaders vie to be seen as sufficiently hawkish on China.

Blinken had planned to leave Friday night for the trip, the first visit by a US secretary of state to China since 2018. He had been expected to meet with President Xi Jinping and discuss a wide range of issues. But Blinken said he called Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official, on Friday and said he was postponing his trip because of the balloon.

The once-humble balloon is one of many technologies that China’s military forces have seized on as a potential tool in their competition with the United States and other powers.

“Technological advances have opened a new door for the use of balloons,” one article in the Liberation Army Daily — the main newspaper of China’s military — stated last year. Another article in the same newspaper noted that airships in the upper atmosphere could also become like “a thousand eyes” helping to monitor outer space.


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