Blinken tells Chinese counterpart spy balloon incident 'must never happen again'

Top U.S., Chinese diplomats held the first in-person meeting since the incident.

February 18, 2023, 7:00 PM

During their first face-to-face meeting since the U.S. downed a Chinese surveillance balloon, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he warned China's state councilor, Wang Yi, that the action was "unacceptable and must never happen again."

In an interview just after their closed-door session ended, Blinken told ABC "This Week" co-anchor Martha Raddatz that the two "had a very direct, very clear conversation about the Chinese surveillance balloon being sent over our territory in violation of our sovereignty, in violation of international law."

The meeting with Chinese diplomats, which took place on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, appeared to come together in the 11th hour, with the secretary leaving his hotel to head for the venue after ostensibly retiring for the night.

"It was important for me to underscore the importance of having open lines of communication between us in continuing to engage in direct diplomacy. We have a responsibility to manage the relationship responsibly. I think the world expects that of us," Blinken told Raddatz.

Blinken originally planned to visit Beijing earlier this month, but indefinitely delayed the trip after the balloon was spotted and assessed to be a surveillance aircraft from China, deepening the diplomatic rift between the two global superpowers.

PHOTO: In this file photo taken on February 09, 2023, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to the media.
In this file photo taken on February 09, 2023, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to the media.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The secretary initially responded by summoning a senior diplomat from the Chinese embassy before the balloon's presence in American airspace became common knowledge. He ultimately called off the trip when the incident developed into a major news story, calling Wang Yi to inform him of his decision on the day he was scheduled to depart.

A senior State Department official said Saturday's meeting between Blinken and Wang Yi lasted roughly an hour and that the secretary very clearly expressed the administration's displeasure over the incident.

Beijing has maintained the aircraft, which hovered over sensitive military sites across the U.S. mainland, was an unmanned civilian vehicle that blew off course. Hours before his meeting with Blinken, Wang Yi called the U.S. response "absurd and hysterical."

While the senior official said both the Chinese and American delegations had agreed not to characterize each other's sides of the conversation, they indicated that Wang Yi was not able to provide any credible explanation for the surveillance balloon's presence in American airspace and there was no change in either the U.S. assessment or China's position.

In a short readout, Beijing said Wang Yi "expressed China's solemn position on the so-called airship incident, demanding that the United States change its course and face up to and solve the damage caused by the indiscriminate use of force."

State Department sources have previously said that a short meeting between Blinken and Wang Yi would not be a replacement for a visit by the secretary to Beijing, but Blinken and other high-level officials have publicly pledged to keep lines of communication with China open.

The official said that while the conversation between the countries' top diplomats was "the kind that contributes towards that goal" there was still work to be done, and that Blinken expressed the administration's disappointment over the lack of communication from China's military, which declined a call from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin after the balloon shootdown.

They also added that Blinken restated President Joe Biden's intention to speak with China's President Xi Jinping in the near future.

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