The downing of an alleged Chinese spy balloon has sparked a diplomatic row between Washington and Beijing.
The United States was not seeking conflict with China despite heightened tensions over last week’s downing of an alleged Chinese surveillance balloon over its airspace, President Joe Biden told US broadcaster PBS.
“We will absolutely compete with China, but … we’re not looking for a confrontation — and that’s been the case up until now,” Biden said on Wednesday.
The sighting of the balloon, which US officials say was part of a spy fleet spanning five continents, sparked a diplomatic row between the two countries, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken delaying a trip to Beijing.
Blinken said the alleged surveillance bubble was “a clear violation of our sovereignty. The first diplomat said the US had been providing information to allies while assessing the remains found.
“We’ve already shared information with dozens of countries around the world, both from Washington and through our embassies,” Blinken said.
“We are doing this because the United States was not the only target of this broader program, which violated the sovereignty of countries on five continents,” he said at a joint press conference with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg.
Biden said in Tuesday’s State of the Union address that his orders to shoot down the balloons showed the US would not hesitate to act when necessary.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, speaking separately to reporters on Air Force One, described the balloons as part of the fleet and said they had been spotted around the world for several years.
A giant white balloon with sophisticated equipment flew over the continental US last week before Biden ordered the military to shoot it down just off the east Atlantic coast.
China denies it was a surveillance balloon
China insists the balloon was just conducting weather research, but the Pentagon has described it as a high-tech spy operation. The balloon hovered at an altitude far higher than most aircraft and passed directly over at least one sensitive US military location.
China, which expressed regret over the airstrike but later condemned the US decision to shoot it down, told Biden it would also “firmly defend” its interests.
Meanwhile, NATO’s secretary general, whose visit to Washington followed trips to Japan and South Korea, said the balloon showed the need for countries across the alliance to protect themselves.
“China’s balloon over the United States confirms a pattern of Chinese behavior where we see China investing heavily in new military capabilities in recent years,” Stoltenberg said on Wednesday.
“We have also seen increased Chinese intelligence activities in Europe. They use satellites, they use cyber and, as we saw over the United States, they also use balloons. So we simply have to be vigilant,” he said.
Stoltenberg also issued a fresh warning that China is learning lessons from the war in Ukraine, which NATO countries are supporting as it fights Russian invaders.
“What happens in Europe today could happen in Asia tomorrow,” Stoltenberg said, pointing to China’s pressure on Taiwan, a self-governing democracy claimed by Beijing.
In an interview with PBS, the US president also said that Chinese President Xi Jinping has “huge problems”, including an “economy that is not working very well”.
Beijing condemned Biden’s comments on Thursday, saying the statements were “extremely irresponsible”.
After a brief warm-up following the G20 meeting between Biden and Xi in November, US-China relations have cooled following the emergence of an alleged spy bubble.