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Biden to speak with Xi to ‘get to the bottom’ of spy balloon incident

US President Joe Biden plans to talk to Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart, to “get to the bottom” of the situation involving the suspected Chinese spy balloon that was shot down off the coast of South Carolina two weeks ago.

Biden said he gave the order for a US fighter jet to shoot the balloon, which flew over North America for eight days, in a way that ensured no harm to civilians while at the same time sending a strong message to China.

“We shot it down, sending a clear message . . . that the violation of our sovereignty is unacceptable,” Biden said on Thursday in short remarks that followed days of criticism from Republicans over his relative silence on the issue.

“I expect to be speaking with President Xi and I hope to get to the bottom of this. But I make no apologies for taking down that balloon.”

Speaking about the other three objects the US military shot down last week — over Alaska on Friday, the Yukon on Saturday, and Lake Huron on Sunday — Biden said there was no indication of any connection with China.

“Our military and the Canadian military are seeking to recover the debris so we can learn more about these three objects.”

“We don’t yet know exactly what these three objects were, but nothing right now suggests they were related to China’s spy balloon programme or that they were surveillance vehicles from any other country,” he added.

Biden said the current assessment from US intelligence officials was that the three objects were probably balloons operated by private companies, recreational groups, or institutions conducting scientific research.

The shooting down of the three unidentified flying objects had sparked conspiracy theories, prompting the White House to stress this week that there was no evidence of involvement by aliens or extraterrestrials.

The appearance of the Chinese balloon — which Beijing insists was a meteorological research craft that strayed off course due to high winds — and its shooting down has sparked another crisis in US-China relations, which were already in their worst state in more than four decades.

Earlier this month, secretary of state Antony Blinken cancelled a planned visit to China on short notice to protest the appearance of the balloon.

Blinken is now trying to arrange a meeting with Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official, at the Munich security conference this weekend. But two people familiar with the talks said Wang had not yet agreed to such a meeting. The US state department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In his remarks, Biden said the US did not have evidence that there was a “sudden increase” in the number of objects flying over North American skies. He said the uptick was likely related to changes in radar systems.

“We’re now just seeing more of them, partly because of the steps we’ve taken to . . . narrow our radars.”

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter

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