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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

China isn’t ready to pick up phone after balloon incident

The balloon after it was downed on Saturday.

By Helene Cooper

The Pentagon said earlier this week that China had rejected a request from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to speak with his Chinese counterpart Saturday soon after an American fighter jet shot down a Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina.

As the debris was settling into the Atlantic and Navy divers were beginning the arduous task of trying to recover the balloon’s sensors and other surveillance equipment, the Pentagon reached out to China to clear the air.

“We believe in the importance of maintaining open lines of communication between the United States and the PRC in order to responsibly manage the relationship,” Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said in an emailed statement, referring to the People’s Republic of China. “Lines between our militaries are particularly important in moments like this.”

It was not to be. “Unfortunately,” Ryder said, “the PRC has declined our request” to arrange a call with Wei Fenghe, the Chinese defense minister.

Ryder said the Pentagon would keep trying.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a trip to Beijing last weekend after the balloon was sighted above Montana, setting off a diplomatic crisis. The balloon then traversed the country before it was shot down.

China has insisted that the electronics-laden machine was simply a weather balloon that had drifted off course. But Biden administration officials said that its purpose was an attempt by Beijing to spy on American military installations.

This is not the first time China has refused to take a call from the Pentagon. In May 2021, there was another spat between the two superpowers, when Pentagon officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told reporters that three attempts by the secretary’s office to connect with China’s top military officer had gone unanswered.

Beijing fired back. The state-run Global Times newspaper said China had reached out to Austin after he took office and offered to arrange a conversation with the Chinese defense minister. But the paper quoted a Chinese source complaining that Austin had asked to speak to the wrong person — the vice chairman of the Central Military Commission — a request that, the Chinese source said, represented “an unprofessional and unfriendly act of disregarding diplomatic protocol and international common practice.”

After the balloon incident, China’s Foreign Ministry seemed to imply that the debris belonged to Beijing. “The airship is China’s, not the U.S.’,” a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said at a news conference when asked who should get the debris.

Pentagon officials have been clear that they have no intention of returning Beijing’s spying equipment.

Austin last met with the Chinese defense minister in November, on the sidelines of a gathering of defense ministers in Cambodia.

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