Second Chinese ‘spy’ balloon flies over Latin America, Blinken cancels state visit

Alexis Guilleux with AFP
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07:01, February 04, 2023

The case of Chinese “spy balloons” continues to grow. On Thursday, the United States announced the presence of a first Chinese “spy” balloon in their airspace. As it continues its path in the American sky, “another Chinese spy balloon” has been detected, this time over Latin America, according to the Pentagon. Neither its location nor the direction it takes have been specified. The Chinese authorities may have expressed their “regrets” for this “involuntary” intrusion according to them, Washington deemed the affront “unacceptable” and decided in extremis Friday to cancel the trip of Antony Blinken, scheduled for Sunday and Monday.

The secretary of state expressed American displeasure during a call with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, denouncing “an irresponsible act and a clear violation of the sovereignty of the United States which undermines the purpose of the trip”. The highest official of the Chinese Communist Party for diplomacy stressed to him that his country acts in a “responsible” way and has “always strictly respected international laws”, according to the official news agency China news.

A rescheduled state visit

Antony Blinken tried to calm things down by assuring that his visit would be rescheduled when “conditions allow it”, insisting on the need to keep “the lines of communication open” with Beijing. “Imagine for a moment what the reaction in China would have been” if they were concerned, he noted. Antony Blinken’s visit to China would have been the first by a US secretary of state since October 2018.

The Pentagon assured Thursday that it had no doubts about its Chinese origin and its use for espionage purposes. Beijing, which had initially called not to “raise the pin” on this affair, admitted on Friday that it was indeed a device from China. But “it is a civilian aircraft, used for research purposes, mainly meteorological,” assured a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a press release. Affected by the winds, this balloon “deviated from its trajectory”, he added, expressing his country’s “regrets” for this “involuntary” violation of American airspace.

No military or physical threat

“The priority now is to ensure that this spy device leaves our airspace,” said Antony Blinken at a press conference. However, the balloon should remain above US territory for “a few more days”, Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder said on Friday.

The machine, which is heading east, was Friday afternoon “over the central United States” at some 18,000 meters above sea level, he added. Pat Ryder reiterated that the balloon, “maneuverable”, cruised above commercial air traffic and posed “no military or physical threat to those on the ground”.

The spokesperson, however, refused to explicitly detail whether the movements of the machine were remote-controlled. According to US media, the balloon flew over the Aleutian Islands in the northern Pacific Ocean, then passed through Canadian airspace, before entering the United States about two days ago.

He notably flew over the state of Montana (west), which is home to nuclear missile silos, where fighter jets approached him, a senior Pentagon official said Thursday on condition of anonymity. It was decided not to shoot it down, due to the risks posed by possible debris for people on the ground, he added, while judging its ability to collect information “limited”.

“Down That Balloon”

This is not the first time that the US military has seen such an intrusion, but this aircraft has remained longer than others in US airspace. The incident sparked strong reactions within the political class in the United States. The Republican and Democratic leaders of a parliamentary committee on China, Mike Gallagher and Raja Krishnamoorthi, have thus denounced a “violation of American sovereignty”. “Knock down that balloon!” urged former Republican President Donald Trump on Truth Social. Many elected Conservatives have declared themselves of the same opinion, some going so far as to put themselves on the stage, firearms pointed skyward.

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