WASHINGTON: A Chinese spy balloon has been spotted over Latin America, the Pentagon said a day after a similar craft was seen in US skies, prompting the scrapping of a rare trip to Beijing by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The Pentagon said the first balloon was now heading eastwards over the central United States, adding it was not being shot down for safety reasons.
Later Friday, Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder said: “We are seeing reports of a balloon transiting Latin America.”
“We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” he added, without specifying its exact location.
Moments before Blinken’s decision to cancel his trip — aimed at easing tensions between the two countries — China issued a rare statement of regret over the first balloon and blamed winds for pushing what it called a civilian airship into US airspace.
But President Joe Biden’s administration described it as a maneuverable “surveillance balloon”.
With the rival Republican Party already on the offensive, Blinken postponed a two-day visit that was to have started Sunday.
In a telephone call with senior Chinese official Wang Yi, Blinken said he “made clear that the presence of this surveillance balloon in US airspace is a clear violation of US sovereignty and international law, that it’s an irresponsible act.”
Blinken said, however, that he told Wang “the United States is committed to diplomatic engagement with China and that I plan to visit Beijing when conditions allow.”
“The first step is getting the surveillance asset out of our airspace. That’s what we’re focused on,” Blinken told reporters.
According to Chinese state news agency Xinhua, Wang said the two discussed the incident “in a calm and professional manner.”
“China is a responsible country and has always strictly abided by international law,” Xinhua quoted Wang as telling Blinken.
“We do not accept any groundless speculation and hype,” he said, calling both sides to “avoid misjudgments and manage divergence.”
‘Pretext to attack China’
On Saturday, the Chinese foreign ministry released a statement addressing Blinken’s announcement that his trip would not go ahead.
“Some politicians and media in the United States used the (balloon) incident as a pretext to attack and smear China,” it said.
The statement further added in regard to Blinken’s trip, which had been widely publicised in the United States: “As a matter of fact, neither China nor the United States has announced any visit.
“It is the United States’ own decision to release the relevant information and we respect that.”
Blinken would have been the first top US diplomat to visit China since October 2018, signaling a thaw following intense friction under former president Donald Trump.
Last month, Blinken said he would use the trip to help establish “guardrails” to prevent the relationship from escalating into all-out conflict.
Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, were quick to pounce on the balloon incident, casting Biden — who has largely preserved, and at times expanded, Trump’s hawkish policies on China — as weak.
“President Biden should stop coddling and appeasing the Chinese communists. Bring the balloon down now and exploit its tech package, which could be an intelligence bonanza,” tweeted Senator Tom Cotton, a prominent hardliner who had urged Blinken to call off his trip.
“Shoot down the balloon!” added Trump on his Truth Social media platform.
After initial hesitation, Beijing admitted ownership of the “airship” and said it veered off course due to wind.
“The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes,” said the statement attributed to a foreign ministry spokesperson.
“The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure,” it said, using the legal term for an act outside of human control.
A US defense official said earlier that Biden had asked for military options but that the Pentagon believed shooting the object down would put people on the ground at risk from debris.
The balloon has “limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective,” the defense official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
The United States is also widely believed to spy on China, although generally with more advanced technology than balloons.
The northwestern United States is home to sensitive airbases and nuclear weapons in underground silos.
Bracing for worst
In the Philippines, visiting US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin this week agreed to expand the US military presence there, weeks after sealing a separate troop deal with another regional ally, Japan.
The moves indicate the United States is preparing for potential conflict over Taiwan, the self-governing democracy China claims as its own, despite diplomatic efforts.
Biden held a surprisingly cordial meeting in November with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a summit in Bali, where they agreed to send Blinken to Beijing.
A US military officer recently told his forces to be ready for war with China.
“I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me we will fight in 2025,” Air Mobility Command chief General Mike Minihan wrote in a memo, saying that US elections in 2024 would also “offer Xi a distracted America.”