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U.S. cancels Blinken's visit to China after the appearance of a spy balloon

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

That Chinese spy balloon is now moving east. The U.S. says it's a spy craft. China insists a - it's a civilian research vessel that simply veered off course. Secretary of State Blinken abruptly called off a trip to Beijing and said he'd only go when the time is right.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: I'm not going to put a date or time on that because what we're focused right now is on making sure that this ongoing issue is actually a result. The first step, as I said, is getting the surveillance asset out of our airspace.

SIMON: NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen joins us now. Michele, thanks so much for being with us.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Nice to be here.

SIMON: Sounds like a story out of the Cold War, doesn't it?

KELEMEN: It really does. And that's exactly what this trip was supposed to prevent. Secretary Blinken said he wanted to go to China to prove to the world that the U.S. and China - the two major, global, economic powers - can manage their competition responsibly. But he said China undermined the trip with these actions this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLINKEN: China's decision to fly a surveillance balloon over the continental United States is both unacceptable and irresponsible. That's what this is about. It's a violation of our sovereignty. It's a violation of international law.

KELEMEN: And he said that's what he told top Chinese official Wang Yi when he called off the trip yesterday.

SIMON: This trip was supposed to happen this weekend, right?

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, we were planning to fly out last night. We had our visas in hand and our bags sort of packed. So this was very last minute. Though Blinken had been raising concerns with the Chinese about this balloon since Wednesday, when pictures started appearing on social media of this thing way far up in the sky over Montana. Now, the Chinese say it's a civilian research balloon that drifted really far off course. Wang Yi today is blaming the media and U.S. politicians of trying to discredit China. He told Blinken that the U.S. and China need to work together to avoid misjudgments. The secretary says he does plan to reschedule this trip when the conditions are right. But, you know, Scott, that could really take a long time.

SIMON: So how would you judge how all this is affecting U.S.-China relations at the moment?

KELEMEN: Well, it makes it politically harder for Secretary Blinken to get any business done with China. It's more fodder for China hawks in Washington, for sure. On the other hand, it - he could have gone and used this as real leverage with the Chinese. President Xi Jinping is facing, you know, his own problems at home, particularly with the economy and his COVID policies. So he has an interest in improving relations with the Biden administration. And remember, Scott, there is just so much on the agenda. There are tensions over Taiwan and trade and tariffs, the war in Ukraine, China's close relations with Russia. The list is very long and now even longer with these alleged spy balloons.

SIMON: And, Michele, let's keep watching the skies. We hear the balloon is moving east, right?

KELEMEN: Yeah. There were some sightings in Kansas yesterday. Pentagon officials say that this balloon doesn't pose any dangers to Americans on the ground. They actually thought about shooting it down earlier in the week but worried that the debris could cause damage. So they're basically just monitoring it now. And by the way, the Pentagon has confirmed reports of another Chinese surveillance balloon over Latin America. But they're not giving any more details about that.

SIMON: NPR's diplomatic correspondent - balloon correspondent, too, suddenly - Michele Kelemen. Thanks so much.

KELEMEN: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.