President Joe Biden ordered the Pentagon to shoot down an unidentified object over Alaska on Friday, less than a week after a U.S. fighter jet fired a missile to take down a Chinese surveillance balloon over the Atlantic Ocean.
John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, confirmed the Alaska incident in answer to VOA’s question during the White House news briefing Friday.
While the U.S. still does not know details about the object’s “capabilities, purpose or origin,” according to officials, the unidentified high-altitude object again brought into focus the frayed relationship between Washington and Beijing following the Chinese surveillance balloon revelation.
Earlier Friday, VOA Mandarin White House Correspondent Paris Huang spoke with Kirby on U.S.-China relations, as well as the latest developments in Russia’s war on Ukraine.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: China still denies the balloon is for spying. How do you read China’s handling of the whole situation?
John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications: I don't think that we're particularly surprised necessarily by Chinese denials. Look, we had time to collect information about this, to survey this device. We're confident in what we've been saying – that it was in fact a surveillance balloon, that it is not uncommon for the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] to contract out for these kinds of capabilities. We know that they have flown them over 40 to 50 other countries, we're reaching out to those countries as we speak, and now we're going to recover the remains, the debris that's on the bottom of the, off the coast of the Carolinas, and we'll learn even more.
VOA: Will the U.S. advise countries to shoot down the balloons that show up in their territories?
Kirby: We're spending time and energy notifying these countries of the forensic work that we have done and what we know this particular spy balloon program by the PLA is up to, that's the focus of those conversations.
VOA: During the State of the Union, President Biden said, ‘Name me a global leader who would change places with Xi Jinping.’ What does he mean by it?
Kirby: His point is that the PRC [People’s Republic of China] is not 10 feet tall. That this is a country, large and vast though it is, it's having struggles economically, he's got domestic problems as well at home. They haven't been totally transparent about COVID, but they're still in the throes of some of the pandemic’s aftereffects. And I think the president's point was, in this strategic competition of ours, the United States is uniquely poised to succeed.
VOA: The Wagner Group claims to have stopped recruiting Russian convicts for the war in Ukraine. Can U.S. intelligence confirm this?
Kirby: I'll let Mr. [Yevgeny] Prigozhin speak for his recruiting tactics. Perhaps one of the reasons he's not, maybe not recruiting out of prisons is because he's already emptied all of them. We know that he's been throwing a lot of convicts into this fight. And that he has a personal stake here in trying to upstage the defense ministry, and probably has a personal stake in some of the economic gains.
The larger point is that Mr. [Vladimir] Putin, after repeatedly failing to achieve any strategic objectives inside Ukraine, is now increasingly relying on others to prop up his effort. He's going into Iran to buy drones. He's venturing out to North Korea to get artillery shells, and now he's using a guy like Mr. Prigozhin, a private military contractor, to actually conduct military operations on the battlefield. I think that says a lot about how much Mr. Putin realizes his own military has been failing.
VOA: Ukraine said it had intercepted plans by Russia to destroy Moldova. Can you confirm?
Kirby: I’m not able to confirm that reporting.
VOA: Russia launched a fresh wave of missile attacks across Ukraine today. What can the U.S. do to help Ukraine defend its skies more effectively?
Kirby: We’ve prioritized air defense in many of the recent security assistance packages that we've been giving Ukraine. As you know, we also announced that we're going to be providing a whole Patriot battery. In fact, the training for Ukrainian soldiers to use that Patriot battery is going on right now in Oklahoma. We've prioritized air defense, whether it's short-, medium-, or long-range for much of the last few weeks and months, and we're going to continue to do that going forward.
VOA: Moscow announced Chinese President Xi Jinping will be visiting Russia, probably at the anniversary of the invasion. Your reaction?
Kirby: I’ll just say this, without confirming this trip or what Russia's motivations for speaking to it are. Mr. Putin is isolated; he has made his country even more of a pariah than it already was after they invaded Ukraine the first time in 2014. And he's desperate for assistance, because the exports and export controls and the sanctions have taken a big bite out of his defense industrial progress. He's having trouble supplying microelectronics for cruise missiles. He’s reaching out to Iran for drones, reaching out to North Korea for ammunition, and he’s relying on private military contractors. This is a man who does not have a lot of friends in the world.
VOA: How much goodwill is left between the U.S. and China, and how confident are you that it can be rebuilt?
Kirby: We don't seek conflict with China. And we do want to keep the lines of communication open, especially at a time like this. But we do seek a strategic competition that the president believes that the United States is well poised to come out on top.
Now's not the appropriate time for the secretary of state to go to Beijing. When it is the appropriate time, we’ll be willing to have those discussions with Beijing.
The whole world is expecting that these two countries are going to manage this most consequential of bilateral relationships in a responsible, forthright, prudent manner. That is where President Biden still is. That's where he wants to take it. And his ability to do that is not helped by this egregious violation of our airspace.