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[research] = Comment on this storyCommentPresident Biden postponed his top diplomat’s first official trip to China on Friday in response to the Pentagon’s discovery of an alleged Chinese spy balloon flying over the continental United States, said a U.S. official familiar with the matter.The decision came just hours before Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to depart for Beijing in a dramatic indication of how seriously the Biden administration takes the incident and wants to avoid appearing soft on China.The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.Since the outset of his presidency, Biden has been sensitive to Republican criticisms that he is insufficiently tough on China, though on the issue of canceling the trip, Republicans were divided on the matter. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas called on the administration to cancel the trip while House Speaker Kevin McCarthy demanded a Gang of Eight intelligence briefing from the president on the balloon.Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee encouraged Blinken to use the trip to send a tough message to China regarding the suspected spy balloon. But U.S. officials appeared to be concerned about the optics of the visit in wake of the incursion, even though experts said the incident, even if an act of espionage, was not remarkable.“All countries, especially competitors like the United States and China, spy on each other. It’s a fact of international relations, and has been forever,” said Jacob Stokes, an expert at the Center for a New American Security and a former Obama administration official. “And we know PRC intelligence extensively targets America.At the same time, U.S. officials have said they do not think the balloon was able to gather information that couldn’t be acquired in other ways, namely by spy satellites. So while the means might be novel, the intelligence likely collected and the fact of Chinese spying are mundane.”The Pentagon on Thursday said in a shock announcement that the balloon was drifting over high-altitude U.S. airspace, and is being tracked but is not currently considered a threat to people on the ground.The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) continues to track the balloon’s course, but officials would not specify its present whereabouts. U.S. officials briefly considered shooting the balloon down but decided against it due to the threat of falling debris to people on the ground.China’s Foreign Ministry on Friday released a statement confirming the balloon originated in China, but said it is a weather balloon that drifted off course. It said it was in communication with the U.S. side.They called for “cool-heads” over the incident, while state media overnight criticized U.S. media for “hyping” the incident in relation to the Blinken trip.“It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes. Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course,” read the Chinese Foreign Ministry statement.Christopher B. Johnstone, a former White House aide handling East Asia issues and a former CIA officer, expressed surprise that the administration would postpone the trip over the incident, and said it reflects the gloomy mood inside the administration over the direction of the relationship.“There’s all this hopeful happy talk outside of government about the US and China restoring guardrails,” he said.” But there’s clearly deep pessimism inside the government about how far they can get if they’re willing to pull down this visit over a balloon.”Laurence Pfeiffer, a former White House official and CIA chief of staff said the administration would be rewarding Chinese bad behavior if Blinken went ahead with the trip. “The Republicans would eat them alive.”He also voiced skepticism about the Chinese claim it was a meteorological airship. “Weather balloon? Sure- just what you’d expect the Chinese to claim,” he said. “Why no alert until after it was spotted?”There is precedent for Beijing claiming that military projects are civilian research, including a 2021 hypersonic missile test, which the Foreign Ministry said at the time was a routine test of reusable space vehicles.This is a developing story and will be updated.

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Source: www.washingtonpost.com