China’s defense minister snubs US counterpart over balloon shooting

Wei Fenghe rejected a phone call, saying the US didn’t create a ‘proper atmosphere for dialogue.’
By RFA Staff
China’s defense minister snubs US counterpart over balloon shooting U.S. Navy sailors recovering a high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, S.C., Feb. 5, 2023.
U.S. Navy via AP

UPDATED AT 03:43 a.m. ET ON 02-10-2023

The Chinese defense minister refused a phone call with his U.S. counterpart over the balloon incident, citing the lack of goodwill on the U.S side, China’s ministry of defense has confirmed.

On Saturday the U.S. military shot down the suspected Chinese spy balloon that had flown over the United States for several days, prompting protests from Beijing.

On the same day immediately after the strike, the Pentagon requested a phone call between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and China’s Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe but China rejected the request.

Nearly a week later, the Chinese defense ministry issued a statement explaining the reason.

tan kefei.jpg
Chinese defense ministry spokesman, Senior Col. Tan Kefei.
Credit: China’s Ministry of National Defense

Senior Col. Tan Kefei, a ministry’s spokesperson, said the U.S. “persisted in using force to attack China's civilian unmanned airship, which seriously violated international practices and set a very bad precedent.”

China didn’t accept the proposal for a telephone conversation between the two defense chiefs because the U.S. “failed to create a proper atmosphere for dialogue and exchange between the two militaries,” Tan said.

In light of the U.S. side's “irresponsible and seriously wrong practice” China reserves the right to take necessary measures, the spokesman added.

Open lines of communication

The Pentagon said the U.S. military leadership believes in “the importance of maintaining open lines of communication” between the two sides in order to “responsibly manage the relationship.” 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, however, called off his planned trip to Beijing after the suspected spy balloon was spotted over Montana last week.

The U.S. Navy is continuing to retrieve remnants of the Chinese balloon off the South Carolina coast.

The FBI reportedly has begun processing and analyzing pieces of evidence recovered from the balloon and transferred to the FBI’s laboratory in Quantico, Virginia.

FBI balloon.jpg
FBI special agents process material recovered from the high altitude balloon at the FBI laboratory in Quantico, Va. on Feb. 9, 2023. Credit: FBI via AP

Beijing insists it was a weather balloon thrown off course by “force majeure,” or unforeseen circumstances, and on Monday said the debris were “China’s, not the U.S.’”

A senior U.S. State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, on Thursday told reporters the balloon manufacturer has a direct relationship with the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

The official also said that high-resolution imagery of the balloon from U-2 aircraft flybys showed it was "capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations," and that its equipment was "inconsistent" with that of weather balloons.

At a State Department briefing Thursday, spokesperson Ned Price said U.S. officials are “exploring taking action against PRC entities linked to the PLA that supported the balloon’s incursion into U.S. airspace.”

The People’s Republic of China is China’s official name.

China has similarly violated the sovereignty of “some 40 countries across five continents” by going into their airspaces “with the express point of collecting intelligence,” Price said without naming specific countries.

He added that those activities had occurred "over the course of several years."

‘Pacing challenge’

A senior Defense Department told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee that China “remains the pacing challenge for the U.S. government.”

Ely Ratner, the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, made a testimony at a hearing entitled ‘Evaluating U.S.-China policy in the era of strategic competition.’

“…in recent years, the PRC has increasingly turned to the PLA as an instrument of coercive statecraft in support of its global ambitions, including by conducting more dangerous, coercive, and aggressive actions in the Indo-Pacific region,” Ratner told the senators.

He said that the U.S. government has been actively taking steps to counter China’s ambitions.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday voted unanimously to condemn China for a “brazen violation” of U.S. sovereignty and efforts to “deceive the international community through false claims about its intelligence collection campaigns.”

Some lawmakers have criticized President Joe Biden for not acting sooner to down the balloon when it first entered U.S. airspace on Jan. 28.

China dismissed the resolution as “political manipulation” and hype. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters at Friday’s daily briefing that China “is strongly dissatisfied with this and firmly opposes it.”

Story updated to include China Foreign Ministry comments in final paragraph.


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