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China says balloon spotted over U.S. is a 'civilian airship' that blew astray

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

After the U.S. military spotted a Chinese surveillance balloon floating above the U.S., Secretary of State Antony Blinken is postponing a planned and rare trip to China. China acknowledged it was - that balloon was theirs, but said it wasn't for spying - a civilian vessel used mainly for weather monitoring. Talks are ongoing about how to resolve this. For more, NPR's Michele Kelemen joins us. Hi, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there, Leila.

FADEL: OK, so let's start with what the Chinese are saying about this balloon.

KELEMEN: Right. So the foreign ministry said that the balloon was being used for scientific purposes, that it was a civilian balloon and that it accidentally strayed into U.S. airspaces. The Chinese officials actually expressed regret and said they're in communication with the U.S. about how to handle it. And the statement, Leila, came pretty late at night Beijing time, showing that they were really working to ease tensions over this incident and pave the way for Blinken's trip to proceed. But clearly, that wasn't in the cards.

FADEL: Yeah, let's talk about that. You describe an apologetic China, it sounds like, trying to smooth things over, but the Blinken trip is postponed. What do we know about what the State Department is saying, and what the plans are going forward?

KELEMEN: So an official who briefed us on background, who asked not to be named, said that they noted China's statement of regret, but said that this was a clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law. They called this unacceptable and irresponsible and said that Blinken and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman both have raised this with Chinese officials here in Washington as early as Wednesday evening, actually. So this has been going on for a couple of days. The administration decided, after consulting with - you know, among each other in the interagency process, but also with U.S. lawmakers, that the time was not right for this trip. And I have to say that even before this balloon incident, experts were really downbeat about the prospects for any real breakthrough with China, given the politics here at home. Here's what former assistant secretary of state for Asia Susan Thornton told me about that.

SUSAN THORNTON: It's hard to make any concessions to China right now, so therefore, it's really hard to see how diplomacy can happen, frankly. That's what I worry about. And I don't think that's a very good place for us to be with China, given all of the things we have on our list.

KELEMEN: You know, U.S. officials say they still believe in diplomacy. They call this the most consequential and complex relationships on the planet. And they're hoping to reschedule this trip eventually when the time is right.

FADEL: And she's talking about hawkish views here at home when it comes to trying to make headway with the rocky relationship with China.

KELEMEN: Yeah, I mean, it's a - very hawkish views of the U.S. position is about competition with China. They say that they want to show the world that they can safely and responsibly manage this competition. But when incidents like this get out of hand, it's going to be pretty difficult.

FADEL: So what do we know about what's going to happen to that balloon?

KELEMEN: Not clear yet. U.S. officials say they took steps to make sure China couldn't gather any intelligence with this vessel, but they decided not to shoot it down because they were worried about debris hurting Americans. So they're still monitoring it.

FADEL: NPR's Michele Kelemen, thanks so much for your reporting.

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

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.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.