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Biden to discuss balloon with Xi: ‘We are not looking for a new cold war’

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By Steve Holland and Jeff Mason for Reuters

US President Joe Biden speaks to the press following the 10th North American Leaders’ Summit, at The National Palace in Mexico City, on 10 January, 2023.

US President Joe Biden
Photo: AFP / Jim Watson

US President Joe Biden expects to speak with China’s President Xi Jinping about what the US says was a Chinese spy balloon shot down this month over US soil.

“We are not looking for a new cold war,” Biden said.

Biden, in his most extensive remarks about the Chinese balloon and three unidentified objects downed by US fighters did not say when he would speak with Xi, but said the United States was continuing to engage diplomatically with China on the issue.

“I expect to be speaking with President Xi, I hope we are going to get to the bottom of this but I make no apologies for taking down that balloon,” Biden said in response to complaints from Beijing.

China says the 60m balloon was for monitoring weather conditions, but Washington DC says it clearly was a surveillance balloon with a massive undercarriage containing electronics.

Biden, who had offered few public comments about the spate of aerial objects that began with the spotting of the Chinese balloon, broke his silence after lawmakers demanded more information on the incidents which have baffled many Americans.

He said the US intelligence community was still trying to learn more about the three unidentified objects: one shot down over Alaska, one over Canada and a third that plunged into Lake Huron. The administration said they were downed because they posed a threat to civil aviation.

“We don’t yet know exactly what these three objects were, but nothing right now suggests they were related to the Chinese spy balloon program or they were surveillance vehicles from any other country,” Biden said.

He said the intelligence community believed the objects were “most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions” and might have been spotted due to enhanced radar in response to the Chinese balloon.

“That’s why I’ve directed my team to come back to me with sharper rules for how we will deal with these unidentified objects moving forward, distinguishing between those that are likely to pose safety and security risks that necessitate action and those that do not.”

The remarks came amid reports that the Chinese balloon – downed on 4 February after crossing the continental United States – originally had a trajectory that would have taken it over Guam and Hawaii but was blown off course by prevailing winds.

The incident prompted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a planned visit to Beijing, where both sides had sought to stabilise already fraught relations.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing on the Fiscal Year 2023 Budget at the U.S. Capitol on April 26, 2022 in Washington, DC.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken
Photo: Getty pool via AFP

Blinken’s scheduled attendance at the Munich Security Conference this weekend has raised speculation he could meet China’s top diplomat Wang Yi there.

John Bolton, a national security advisor during the Trump administration, said on Twitter he had been briefed on Wednesday by the US intelligence community and remained “profoundly troubled about the Biden Administration’s handling of these potential national-security threats”, citing what he called its “changing story line”.

The Washington Post reported on Tuesday US military and intelligence agencies tracked the balloon from when it lifted off from China’s southern island province of Hainan.

It was shot down off the coast of South Carolina, and American lawmakers have slammed the administration for letting it first drift across the country, including near sensitive military bases.

Asked in advance about Biden’s remarks, a China’s foreign ministry spokesman on Thursday once again referred to the downed balloon as an “unmanned civilian airship,” and said its flight into US airspace was an “isolated” incident.

The US “should be willing to meet China in the middle, manage differences and appropriately handle isolated, unexpected incidents to avoid misunderstandings and misjudgments; and promote the return of US-China relations to a healthy and stable development track,” spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters at a regular briefing.

Beijing had criticised Washington for overreacting by shooting down the balloon, and warned of “countermeasures against relevant US entities that undermine China’s sovereignty and security”.

On Thursday, China put Lockheed Martin Corp and a unit of Raytheon Technologies Corp on an “unreliable entities list” over arms sales to Taiwan, banning them from imports and exports related to China in its latest sanctions against the US companies.

– Reuters

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