WASHINGTON (Reuters) – 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.
Separately, the Pentagon’s top China official, Michael Chase, plans to visit Taiwan in the coming days, the Financial Times reported, citing sources. Chase would be the most senior U.S. defense official to visit the island since 2019. China claims the democratically governed island as its own, while the U.S. for decades has followed a non-committal policy.
After the speech, Biden told NBC News: “I think the last thing that Xi wants is to fundamentally rip the relationship with the United States and with me.”
China says the 200-foot (60-meter) balloon shot down was for monitoring weather conditions, but Washington says it clearly was a surveillance balloon with a massive undercarriage containing electronics.
Biden, who had made few public comments about the spate of aerial objects that began with the spotting of the Chinese balloon, broke his silence after U.S. 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 the objects 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.
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 radar that was enhanced 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,” he said.
Biden said the results of the administration’s review of how to deal with unidentified objects going forward would be classified and shared with relevant members of Congress. “These parameters will remain classified so we don’t give a road map to our enemies to try to evade our defenses,” he said.
Biden’s remarks followed 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 February visit to Beijing, where both sides had planned to seek to stabilize already fraught relations.
Blinken’s scheduled attendance at the Munich Security Conference this coming weekend has raised speculation that he could meet China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, there.
The U.S. military shot the balloon down off the South Carolina coast. American lawmakers have slammed the administration for letting it first drift across the country, including near sensitive military bases.
Asked in advance about Biden’s remarks, a Chinese 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,” spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters at a regular briefing.
Washington briefed dozens of countries on what it said was a global Chinese surveillance program, and added six Chinese entities to an export blacklist.
Beijing warned of “countermeasures against relevant U.S. entities that undermine China’s sovereignty and security” and on Thursday 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.
(Reporting by Steve Holland, Jeff Mason, Doina Chiacu and Kanishka Singh; additional reporting by Laurie Chen and Martin Quin Pollard in Beijing; writing by Michael Martina; editing by Jonathan Oatis. Mark Heinrich and Leslie Adler)