US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed his planned trip to China after the discovery of a Chinese surveillance balloon over US airspace, two State Department officials confirmed on Friday. China has since issued a mea culpa for the incident, saying the aircraft is a “civilian airship used for research” that deviated off course and entered US airspace. The officials noted Beijing’s statement of regret, but said “the presence of this balloon in our airspace is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law. And it is unacceptable that this has occurred.” “After consultations with our interagency partners, as well as with Congress, we have concluded that the conditions are not ripe at this moment for Secretary Blinken to travel to China,” the official said while addressing reporters on the condition of anonymity. Blinken conveyed directly to his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, that he is postponing the trip, but indicated that he would travel to China “at the earliest opportunity when conditions allow,” the official said. “In the meantime, we will maintain open lines of communication with the PRC to address our concerns about this ongoing incident and to responsibly manage the competition between our countries,” he said, referring to China by its official acronym.
Blinken was to travel to China this weekend, and the State Department officials did not specify when he might now visit Beijing other than saying when unspecified “conditions allow.” “We will assess and we will determine when the conditions are right for future travel to Beijing. And of course, we’ll do that as we continue to communicate with our Chinese counterparts,” the official said. “We have been crystal clear with our Chinese counterparts that this was an unacceptable and irresponsible incident.”
Another official who also spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity said Blinken had planned for a “a broad substantive agenda” during his meetings with Chinese officials,” but said that the discovery of the balloon “would have narrowed that agenda in a way that would have been unhelpful and unconstructive.” The Pentagon determined that the balloon is a reconnaissance aircraft in what is a stark deviation from China’s explanation. It remains in US airspace, but at a high enough altitude that it is not a threat to commercial aircraft. A senior defense official said on Thursday that the balloon was “clearly” intended for surveillance and entered US airspace a couple of days ago. “We had been looking at whether there was an option yesterday” to take down the balloon “over some sparsely populated areas in Montana, but we just couldn’t buy down the risk enough to feel comfortable recommending shooting it down yesterday,” the official added.

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