U.S. President Joe Biden said on Thursday he expects to speak with China’s President Xi Jinping about what the United States says was a Chinese spy balloon that a U.S. fighter jet shot down early this month after it transited the United States.
“We are not looking for a new Cold War,” Biden said.
Biden, in his most extensive remarks about the Chinese balloon and three unidentified objects downed by U.S. fighters, did not say when he would speak with Xi, but said the United States was continuing to engage diplomatically with China on the issue.
“I expect to be speaking with President Xi, I hope we are going to get to the bottom of this, but I make no apologies for taking down that balloon,” Biden said in response to complaints from Beijing.
China says the 60-metre balloon was for monitoring weather conditions, but Washington says it clearly was a surveillance balloon with a massive undercarriage containing electronics.
Biden, who had offered few public comments about the spate of aerial objects that began with the spotting of the Chinese balloon, broke his silence after lawmakers demanded more information on the incidents, which have baffled many Americans.
He said the U.S. intelligence community was still trying to learn more about the three unidentified objects: one that was shot down over Alaska, one over Canada and a third that plunged into Lake Huron. The administration has said they were downed because they posed a threat to civil aviation.
“We don’t yet know exactly what these three objects were, but nothing right now suggests they were related to the Chinese spy balloon program or they were surveillance vehicles from any other country,” Biden said.
On Thursday, RCMP said in a release that they’re suspending the search for debris in Lake Huron due to several factors, “including deteriorating weather and the low probability of recovery.”
They noted they will continue to search for debris in Yukon.
Objects most likely ‘tied to private companies’
The intelligence community believes the objects were “most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions,” Biden said.
Biden said they might have been spotted due to enhanced radar in response to the Chinese balloon.
“That’s why I’ve directed my team to come back to me with sharper rules for how we will deal with these unidentified objects moving forward, distinguishing between those that are likely to pose safety and security risks that necessitate action and those that do not.”
The remarks came amid reports that the Chinese balloon downed on Feb. 4 after crossing the continental United States originally had a trajectory that would have taken it over Guam and Hawaii but was blown off course by prevailing winds.
The incident prompted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a planned visit to Beijing, where both sides had sought to stabilize already fraught relations. Blinken’s scheduled attendance at the Munich Security Conference this weekend has raised speculation that he could meet China’s top diplomat Wang Yi there.
John Bolton, a national security advisor during the Trump administration, said on Twitter that he had been briefed on Wednesday by the U.S. intelligence community and remained “profoundly troubled about the Biden Administration’s handling of these potential national-security threats,” citing what he called its “changing story line.”
The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that U.S. military and intelligence agencies tracked the balloon from when it lifted off from China’s southern island province of Hainan. It was shot down off the coast of South Carolina, and American lawmakers have slammed the administration for letting it first drift across the country, including near sensitive military bases.
Beijing criticizes Washington
Asked in advance about Biden’s remarks, a China’s foreign ministry spokesman on Thursday once again referred to the downed balloon as an “unmanned civilian airship,” and said its flight into U.S. airspace was 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,” spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters at a regular briefing.
Beijing had criticized Washington for overreacting by shooting down the balloon, and warned of “countermeasures against relevant U.S. entities that undermine China’s sovereignty and security.”
On Thursday, China put Lockheed Martin Corp. and a unit of Raytheon Technologies Corp. on an “unreliable entities list” over arms sales to Taiwan, banning them from imports and exports related to China in its latest sanctions against the U.S. companies.
Searching for downed object in Yukon
There have been four mysterious objects shot down over North America in the last month. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Sunday that teams are working to “find and analyze” an object shot down on Saturday over the Yukon, while another object was destroyed Sunday over Lake Huron by the U.S. military.
“The safety of Canadians is our No. 1 priority, that’s why I made the decision to shoot down the object. It was a threat to civil aviation and a potential threat to Canadians,” Trudeau said in brief remarks on Sunday morning.
On Thursday, the RCMP said search and recovery efforts continue in Yukon with the assistance of the Canadian Armed Forces.
“The conditions are extremely challenging with a very large search area, spanning 3,000 square kilometres, and consisting of rugged and mountainous terrain with a high level of snowpack and harsh winter conditions,” the RCMP said in the news release.
“This investigation is in its very early stages and will take time. We will share additional information when it becomes available as the recovery efforts and investigation unfold.”