The United States was not looking for conflict with China despite heightened tensions over last week’s downing of an alleged Chinese surveillance balloon over its airspace, President Joe Biden has told the US broadcaster PBS.
“We’re going to compete fully with China, but … we’re not looking for conflict – and that’s been the case so far,” Biden said on Wednesday.
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Even so, the US president angered Beijing by saying that Chinese President Xi Jinping had “enormous problems”, including “an economy that is not functioning very well”.
“This type of rhetoric from the US is extremely irresponsible and runs counter to basic diplomatic etiquette,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters on Thursday, saying Beijing was “strongly dissatisfied”.
The sighting of the balloon, which US officials say was part of a spy fleet spanning five continents, has caused a diplomatic row between the two countries, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponing a trip to Beijing.
Blinken has said that the suspected surveillance balloon was “a clear violation of our sovereignty”. The top diplomat has said that the US was giving data to allies as it assessed recovered debris.
“We already shared information with dozens of countries around the world, both from Washington and through our embassies,” Blinken said.
“We’re doing so because the United States was not the only target of this broader programme, which has violated the sovereignty of countries across five continents,” he told a joint news conference with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg.
The Pentagon also said on Wednesday that the balloon was part of a programme involving a number of such airships that China has been operating for “several years”.
Biden, in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, said that his orders to shoot down the balloon showed that the US would not hesitate to act when needed.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, speaking separately to reporters on Air Force One, described the balloons as part of a fleet and said they had been spotted around the world for several years.
China denies it was a surveillance balloon
China insists that the balloon was merely conducting weather research, but the Pentagon described it as a high-tech spying operation. The balloon floated at an altitude far higher than most aeroplanes and crossed directly over at least one sensitive US military site.
China, which voiced regret about the air intrusion but later denounced the US decision to down the balloon, responded to Biden that it would also “firmly defend” its interests.
Meanwhile, NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg, whose visit to Washington followed a trip to Japan and South Korea, said the balloon showed the need for countries across the alliance to protect themselves.
“The Chinese balloon over the United States confirms a pattern of Chinese behaviour where we see that China over the last years has invested heavily in new military capabilities,” Stoltenberg said on Wednesday.
“We’ve also seen increased Chinese intelligence activities in Europe. They use satellites, they use cyber and, as we’ve seen over the United States, also balloons. So we just have to be vigilant,” he said.
Stoltenberg also issued a new warning that China was drawing lessons from the war in Ukraine, which NATO countries have been supporting as it fights back Russian invaders.
“What happens in Europe today could happen in Asia tomorrow,” Stoltenberg said, pointing to China’s pressure on Taiwan, the self-governing democracy claimed by Beijing.