BILLINGS, Mont. (NewsNation) — Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed a planned high-stakes diplomatic trip to Beijing as the White House weighs how to respond to the discovery of a high-altitude Chinese balloon flying over sensitive sites in the U.S.
In a press conference Friday, Blinken said the “conditions were not conducive” to a China visit now.
The abrupt decision comes despite the announcement from China’s Foreign Ministry Friday that the high-altitude balloon spotted over U.S. airspace is a “civilian airship” — a weather research satellite — used for research that blew off its course.
The U.S. has described it as a surveillance satellite, and China said in its statement that it regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace.
“We have noted (China’s) statement of regret, but the presence of this balloon in our airspace is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law,” a senior State Department official said. “And it is unacceptable that this has occurred.”
The decision came just hours before Blinken had been due to depart Washington for Beijing and marked a new blow to already strained U.S.-Chinese relations. Officials said Blinken and President Joe Biden determined it was best not to proceed with the trip at this time.
However, on “NewsNation Live,” retired Maj. Gen. William Enyart said this balloon is “really insignificant,” and that delaying the secretary of state’s trip is really a response to the political reaction in the U.S.
The balloon — which the federal government had suspected was a Chinese spy balloon — was first noticed by residents of Billings on Wednesday.
They told NewsNation that the situation is surprising, but some said it’s just a part of the world we live in.
“It’s pretty crazy. To think that something like that could happen up here is insane, we’re kind of a small town,” resident Anthony Morse said. “Nothing in this day and age is really surprising anymore. It is what it is.”
Both incoming and outgoing flights at the Billings-Logan International Airport were temporarily grounded Wednesday as fighter jets tracked the balloon while the Pentagon considered its defensive options.
U.S. defense officials said they have been tracking the spy balloon for days, watching as it drifted over the Aleutian Islands off Alaska’s mainland, then over Canada and eventually back over the U.S. again.
One defense official said the balloon is the size of three buses, and at this time the federal government has not said where the balloon may be heading or how and if it plans to bring it down.
President Joe Biden did indeed suggest shooting it down. However, he took the advice of his defense team and did not because falling debris could be a risk to residents on the ground.
Duke, a resident who only shared his first name, said he could believe it and that it didn’t really surprise him. However, he did say that he believes the federal government should shoot it down.
“They want to know how we are, where everything’s at. How we move, what we eat … they want to know how people live, what they like and dislike,” Duke said.
Shelby Fossum had a similar reaction, saying that while it seems invasive, it’s not something really new to the culture today.
“Seems invasive. That’s kind of our world today. I mean, there are cameras everywhere. Like you can’t go unnoticed anywhere,” Fossum said. “You talk about what cereal you need to buy at the grocery store in front of your Alexa and all of a sudden your ads are cereal ads, you know.”
There are legitimate concerns about the balloon floating over Montana as there are three nearby airbases that are known to have long-range nuclear missile silos: Malmstrom Air Force Base about four hours north of Billings, Minot Air Force Base to the east in North Dakota and Francis E. Warren Air Force Base, just south in Wyoming.
However, U.S. officials have downplayed any tactical advantage this balloon might have, saying that China has spy satellites — just like the U.S. — that are able to provide better information, and that the balloon is not getting enough intelligence to pose a threat to national security.
“This balloon is not going to add anything that the Chinese aren’t already getting. The only two possible useful pieces of information that they could get from it would be weather and wind patterns at altitude — which could potentially impact missiles and bombers — and secondly, our ability to detect, track and react to a high-altitude airborne device,” Enyart explained.
Later Friday, the Pentagon acknowledged reports of a second balloon flying over Latin America. “We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement, declining to offer further information such as where it was spotted.
Dave Rank, former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy to China, joined “Morning in America” and expressed his concern about the direction of the U.S.-China relationship. However, he also said a deep breath is in order on the “balloon thing.” He said it doesn’t make much sense to him as an act of intelligence-gathering.
“I’d be interested to see the information behind what’s being briefed to the media, why we were confident this is a Chinese balloon in the first place,” Rank said. “I think there’s just a lot more that we don’t know than we do.”
One advantage to the balloons is that they move slower, meaning they can observe an area for a longer time and, in turn, complement additional intel gathered from satellites.
A senior defense official said this is not the first balloon activity the U.S. has dealt with, but this balloon has been over the nation for a couple of days now — higher and longer than others.
“The balloon is over the continental United States right now. The U.S. government, including (the North American Aerospace Defense Command), continues to monitor it closely. The balloon is currently traveling well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground,” Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement Thursday.
A senior defense official said the U.S. has been in contact with China, making it clear they will do whatever they have to to protect the country.
“We are both vulnerable, and we are deeply entwined with China. I think it’s one of the challenges of the 21st century: How do you, how do we, manage a relationship between two great powers that have really different interests, really different values, but are really closely economically connected,” Rank said.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning responded to the situation, saying that “China is a responsible country that has always strictly abided by international laws, and it has no intention of violating the territory and airspace of any sovereign country.”
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., and Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., the two leaders of the new House Select Committee on China, released a joint statement Friday, saying:
“The Chinese Communist Party should not have on-demand access to American airspace. Not only is this a violation of American sovereignty, coming only days before Secretary Blinken‘s trip to the PRC, but it also makes clear that the CCP’s recent diplomatic overtures do not represent a substantive change in policy. Indeed, this incident demonstrates that the CCP threat is not confined to distant shores — it is here at home and we must act to counter this threat.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.