China says US balloons flew over Chinese territory, warns of countermeasures; Biden to respond

by Jacob Fuller

Diplomatic friction festered between the United States and China on Wednesday as Beijing charged that U.S. high-altitude balloons flew over its Xinjiang and Tibet regions and said it would take measures against U.S. entities that undermine Chinese sovereignty.

Washington and Beijing are locked in a tussle over flying objects after the U.S. military this month shot down what it called a Chinese spy balloon over the coast of South Carolina. Beijing says its balloon was a civilian research vessel mistakenly blown off course, and that Washington overreacted.

This week, China countered that U.S. balloons had flown over its airspace without permission more than 10 times on round-the-world flights since May 2022.

“Without the approval of relevant Chinese authorities, it has illegally flown at least 10 times over China‘s territorial airspace, including over Xinjiang, Tibet, and other provinces,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told a regular daily briefing on Wednesday.

The White House has disputed China‘s allegations.

Washington has added six Chinese entities connected to Beijing’s suspected surveillance balloon program to an export blacklist.

“The U.S. has abused force, overreacted, escalated the situation, and used this as a pretext to illegally sanction Chinese companies and institutions,” Wang said.

China is firmly opposed to this and will take countermeasures against relevant U.S. entities that undermine China‘s sovereignty and security in accordance with the law,” Wang said, without specifying the measures.

The balloon dispute has delayed efforts by both sides to try to patch up frayed relations, although U.S. President Joe Biden has also said that he does not believe ties between the two countries were weakened by the incident.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who postponed a planned trip to Beijing over the balloon, is considering meeting China‘s top diplomat, Wang Yi, in Munich this week, sources have said.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said later on Wednesday that communication with China had not stopped, but gave no details about any future high-level meetings.

“We hope when conditions make sense that we will be seeing each other face-to-face again. No announcements today,” she said

Sherman reiterated that China‘s claims about U.S. balloons were false.

“They have now said that there have been a gazillion balloons by the U.S. over China. That is absolutely not true. There are no U.S. government balloons over China,” she told an event at the Brookings Institution in Washington.


President Joe Biden plans on Thursday to make his most extensive remarks yet about a high-altitude Chinese balloon and three other objects that were shot down by U.S. fighter jets, two sources familiar with the discussions said on Wednesday.

The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the speech was expected to be on Thursday. The timing was unclear, but Biden, 80, is scheduled in the morning to get a physical examination at Walter Reed hospital.

Biden has been under pressure from lawmakers to speak more extensively about the spate of flyovers by unidentified objects, which have baffled many Americans.

He has made few public comments about the situation, leaving it up to White House officials to talk about it.

The United States has said the Chinese balloon was used for surveillance purposes, while Beijing called it a weather balloon.

Asked about Biden’s expected remarks a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry on Thursday once again referred to the downed balloon as an “unmanned civilian airship”, and that its flight into United States air space was but an “isolated” incident.

The U.S. “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 U.S.-China relations to a healthy and stable development track,” spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters at a regular briefing.

Since an American fighter jet shot down the 200-foot Chinese balloon on Feb. 4, three other objects have been downed over hard-to-reach areas – two in the frozen North and one whose debris plummeted into Lake Huron.

John Kirby, the White House national security spokesperson, said on Tuesday that the U.S. intelligence community was considering the possibility that the trio of objects were tied to a commercial or otherwise benign purpose.

He said the United States still had no firm grasp on the origin of the three objects.

Biden has asked national security adviser Jake Sullivan to preside over a task force of related agencies to come up with guidelines on how to address unidentified objects in future.

It is supposed to come up with guidelines this week on what circumstances should be considered before shooting down an unidentified object.

U.S. officials believe the Chinese balloon that was shot down after crossing the continental United States originally had a trajectory that would have taken it over Guam and Hawaii but was blown off course, one official speaking on condition of anonymity said on Wednesday.

Copyright 2023 Thomson/Reuters