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US: No Apology From China for Balloon Surveillance 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives at Incirlik Air Base near Adana, Turkey, Feb. 19, 2023. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Pool Photo via AP)
Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives at Incirlik Air Base near Adana, Turkey, Feb. 19, 2023. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Pool Photo via AP)

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says his Chinese counterpart, top diplomat Wang Yi, did not apologize during a meeting in Munich for Beijing’s violation of U.S. airspace with its high-altitude surveillance balloon, even as Blinken told him the spying was unacceptable and must never occur again.

The two diplomats met for an hour Saturday on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. This marked their first face-to-face meeting since the United States shot down the balloon earlier this month over the Atlantic Ocean off the U.S. Eastern Seaboard after it traversed the mainland for eight days.

Blinken told NBC’s “Meet the Press” show in an interview aired Sunday, “There was no apology. But what I can also tell you is this was an opportunity to speak very clearly and very directly about the fact that China sent a surveillance balloon over our territory, violating our sovereignty, violating international law.”

“And I told him quite simply that that was unacceptable and can never happen again,” Blinken said. “We're of course not the only ones on the receiving end of these surveillance balloons. More than 40 countries have had these balloons fly over them in recent years, and that's been exposed to the world.”

China has contended that the balloon, the size of two or three school buses, was a weather aircraft that drifted off course in the winds over the U.S., but U.S. officials, including Blinken, have rejected that explanation.

“What is clear is that, once the balloon was over the United States and flying basically west to east, it attempted to surveil very sensitive military sites,” he said. “In some cases, it loitered or returned to them as it progressed east. So, there's no doubt in our minds at all that, A) this was a surveillance balloon and, B) it was attempting to engage in active surveillance.”

The U.S. subsequently has retrieved much of the balloon’s payload from the ocean floor off the coast of the southern state of South Carolina and sent the parts to the FBI’s laboratory outside Washington for examination.

Both countries deploy spy satellites. China has accused the U.S., while offering no evidence, of sending at least 10 balloons over China in recent years, an allegation the U.S. said is false.

Blinken, who canceled a scheduled trip to Beijing because of the spy balloon incident, said rescheduling it was not discussed with Wang.

Aside from their discussions about the spy balloon, Blinken said he shared the “very real concerns” of the U.S. about China’s support for Russia’s war against Ukraine, with the anniversary of the conflict this Friday.

To date, he said, the U.S. has seen “some political and rhetorical support, even some nonlethal support. But we are very concerned that China is considering providing lethal support to Russia in its aggression against Ukraine. And I made clear that that would have serious consequences in our relationship as well, something that President [Joe] Biden has shared directly with President Xi [Jinping] on several occasions.”

Blinken said, however, that “to the best of our knowledge they haven’t crossed that line yet” to provide military assistance to Russia and offered no specifics. “But the main concern is material support to Russia's war effort that would have a lethal effect,” he said.

“China's trying to have it both ways,” Blinken contended. “Publicly, they present themselves as a country striving for peace in Ukraine. But privately, as I said, we've seen already over these past months the provision of nonlethal assistance that does go directly to aiding and abetting Russia's war effort.”

“So I think it's important that we make clear, as I did this evening in my meeting with Wang Yi, that this is something that is of deep concern to us,” Blinken said. “And I made clear the importance of not crossing that line, and the fact that it would have serious consequences in our own relationship, something that we do not need on top of the balloon incident that China's engaged in.”

Despite the current contentions, Blinken said the U.S. does not want to engage in a Cold War with China, whose economy is second in the world to the U.S.

“This is obviously among the most consequential but also complex relationships that we have, and probably the same could be said for many other countries around the world,” Blinken said.

“And of course, we're in a vigorous competition with China, and that's something we're not at all shy about,” he said. “We intend to compete very vigorously, and we've taken important steps over the last couple of years to invest in ourselves so that we compete effectively. But also to align with allies and partners around the world so that we have a shared approach to some of the challenges that China poses.”

“And also, it's important to note that there are some very big issues out there that are affecting all of our citizens and affecting people around the world where, if we can, it would be in our interest to find ways to cooperate on climate, on global health, on the macroeconomic situation around the world,” he said. “And we have a responsibility to at least try to do that. So that's why I say you can't reduce this to a bumper sticker or to a label. It's complicated. It's consequential. And we need to manage it responsibly.”

China’s state-run news outlet reported that Wang met with Blinken at the request of the U.S. and that Wang stated China's “solemn position,” requesting the U.S. “change course” and fix the damage done to the bilateral relationship caused by the U.S.’s “abuse of force” in shooting down the balloon.