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Blinken postpones China trip after discovery of surveillance balloon

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Chase Doak was getting ready to leave his office in Billings, Mont., on Wednesday when he looked out the window.

CHASE DOAK: And I just spotted this white circle in the sky. It had caught my attention because it was still broad daylight, and I knew that the stars couldn't be out.

KELLY: He ran outside to his car. He grabbed his camera and his most powerful lens and started snapping photos of that white orb in the sky.

DOAK: What it looked like was a tiny moon that was sort of in the middle of an eclipse is the best way I could describe it.

KELLY: Well, that object is believed to be a Chinese surveillance balloon that the Pentagon is now tracking across the U.S. The Chinese government argues it is a weather-related balloon that unexpectedly blew into U.S. airspace. But Billings residents, like Doak and Casey Rimage (ph), have questions and concerns.

CASEY RIMAGE: It's unsettling. It's a little odd to me that it's still apparently up in the air just kind of cruising over the U.S.

KELLY: Here to tell us more about the U.S. response to this incident is Michele Kelemen. Hey, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Fair to say that the U.S. government and the Chinese government's accounts of what this giant white balloon is doing up there, that these accounts vary significantly?

KELEMEN: Oh, yeah. I mean, the Chinese say it's a civilian research aircraft that - a kind of weather balloon that strayed far off course. And they did express regret over this. But U.S. officials weren't buying that explanation. Take a listen to what Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Pat Ryder had to say today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAT RYDER: We are aware of the PRC's statement. However, the fact is we know that it's a surveillance balloon. And I'm not going to be able to be more specific than that. And we do know that the balloon has violated U.S. airspace and international law.

KELEMEN: You know, he says it's carrying a large payload, suggesting that it has some sort of spy equipment aboard. I have to say, China watchers have a lot of questions about this, Mary Louise. Some analysts point out that China has much more sophisticated tools to conduct espionage, so it's not clear why they would use this huge balloon. But whatever it is, the U.S. says it's likely to be up there for a couple more days.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, it's not exactly covert if people are spotting it from their backyards.

KELEMEN: Yeah.

KELLY: And I suppose we should note there's a history to this kind of thing, right?

KELEMEN: Yeah, but the Pentagon says that this one's been up there a lot longer than others. And then there's just the timing of this whole thing. It came just as Secretary of State Antony Blinken was going to travel to Beijing. We were, in fact, planning to leave tonight, even had our visas and our bags somewhat packed. But Secretary Blinken said he called Wang Yi, a top Chinese official, this morning to say that the U.S. delegation was postponing this trip.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: I made clear that the presence of this surveillance balloon in U.S. airspace is a clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law, that it's an irresponsible act and that the PRC's decision to take this action on the eve of my planned visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have.

KELEMEN: And the White House says the president agreed with Blinken's decision to postpone this trip. A spokesman said there was just a consensus in the administration about that.

KELLY: I mean, setting aside this particular trip that's been postponed, what are the implications more broadly just for the overall U.S.-China relationship?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, I mean, the trip was meant to show the world that the U.S. and China, the world's largest economies, can manage their competition and, as Blinken says, put a floor under relations so they don't sink any further. So you'd think that both sides really would want to keep this visit on track. But clearly, Blinken didn't want this split screen TV image of this spy balloon violating U.S. sovereignty while he's there talking to the Chinese.

KELLY: Yeah.

KELEMEN: And his aides said that they didn't think that he would be able to get much done with this story dominating the news. But, you know, there are just so many things they have to talk about - avoiding conflict over Taiwan, the war in Ukraine, China's relationship with Russia. The list goes on and on. And now you're adding into this mix this kind of Cold War-like spy balloon story. And it's hard to see, you know, how - when a trip like this could get back on track.

KELLY: Yeah. Well, and meanwhile, the spy balloon, which - it's still above U.S. airspace? Give us the forecast for the weekend on this.

KELEMEN: Yeah. Well, the Pentagon says they took steps, first of all, to make sure that it can't collect intelligence. That's what they said at the beginning. They've thought about shooting it down but decided that the debris could be dangerous. So at the moment, it's floating up there. Officials say it doesn't pose any danger to anyone on the ground. And I'd just say that, you know, maybe photographers in Kansas should be pulling out their, you know, big cameras right now and taking some pictures and having more sightings.

KELLY: Yeah, as it floats along. NPR's Michele Kelemen, thank you.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.