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Pentagon says China refused to take call over balloon uproar

Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recover a high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Feb. 5, 2023. (U.S. Fleet Forces)
February 25, 2023

China rebuffed a U.S. effort to arrange a phone call between the two countries’ top defense officials after the United States shot down an alleged spy balloon, a Pentagon spokesman said, in a stark new sign of how the uproar over the balloon has sent ties between the adversaries to a new low.

The department asked for a call between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe right after the balloon was shot down on Saturday. “Unfortunately the PRC has declined our request,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement, referring to China by its formal name, the People’s Republic of China.

“We believe in the importance of maintaining open lines of communication between the United States and the PRC in order to responsibly manage the relationship,” Ryder said. “Lines between our militaries are particularly important in moments like this.”

The Pentagon’s acknowledgment that its request for a call was spurned appeared to dash hopes that relations between the world’s two biggest economies could recover a semblance of normalcy anytime soon after the spy balloon episode and numerous other strains, including a series of new U.S. export controls and what U.S. officials say is China’s stepped-up aggressiveness toward Taiwan.

China’s Embassy in Washington didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. President Joe Biden met President Xi Jinping in November with a promise to try to renew ties, and one goal was to resume military-to-military contacts that were suspended after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan last year.

The U.S. says the balloon was a surveillance device and called its voyage across the country a violation of U.S. territory. Officials have said they felt no obligation to tell China before a U.S. fighter jet shot it down off the coast of South Carolina. China has said the balloon was a weather-monitoring device that blew off course, and that the U.S. had no right to destroy it.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Navy released several photos showing crews recovering the white balloon canopy from waters off Myrtle Beach and some of the structure it was carrying. The balloon was about 200 feet long when inflated, and the equipment it was carrying was about the size of two to three school buses, according to U.S. officials.

The government hasn’t said if it has recovered any of the equipment officials are really interested in, such as the electronics that the balloon was carrying. Speculation has varied about the nature and sophistication of the balloon’s payload, including whether it included cameras or sensors to gather and transmit data.

Sharpened Tone

China sharpened its tone on the balloon after initially expressing regret about the episode. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning accused the U.S. of hyping the incident and said the administration had no right to shoot down the balloon.

Republicans in the U.S. Congress have also criticized the administration for the episode, saying Biden was wrong not to bring down the balloon when it was first discovered in late January but instead let it drift across the U.S., including over some sensitive military sites. On Tuesday, Rep. Michael McCaul called it a test of U.S. resolve that Biden failed.

“They were testing us — it’s a very provocative shot across the bow of the United States of America,” McCaul, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said on Bloomberg Television’s “Balance of Power With David Westin.” “They wanted a display of weakness, and I think to some extent they got that.”

Republicans also zeroed in on the intelligence gaps surrounding the balloon. In a Monday briefing, Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, said that Norad had failed to detect earlier balloons, learning about them later from the U.S. intelligence community, which “made us aware of those balloons that were previously approaching North America or transited North America.”

“I will tell you that we did not detect those threats. And that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out,” he said.

Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, announced an open briefing Thursday for a defense panel he heads to “demand answers” from Biden administration officials on the balloon. Tester has been critical of Biden’s decision not to shoot down the balloon, which passed over ballistic missile silos in Tester’s state. The president has said defense officials wanted to wait until the balloon was over water to avoid the risks of injuries from falling debris.


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