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China declines US defence call after balloon shot down

China has rejected a Pentagon request for a secure call between the two countries’ defense ministers after a balloon was shot down over United States air space.

February 8, 2023
By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali
8 February 2023

China has declined a request for a phone call between United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe after Washington brought down a Chinese spy balloon, the Pentagon says.

A US Air Force fighter jet shot down the balloon off the South Carolina coast on Saturday, a week after it first entered US airspace and triggered a dramatic – and public – spying saga that worsened Sino-US relations.

The Pentagon submitted the request for a secure call on Saturday after the balloon came down, Brigadier General Pat Ryder said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Unfortunately, the PRC (China) has declined our request. Our commitment to open lines of communication will continue,” Ryder said.

The balloon caused a political uproar in Washington and prompted the top US diplomat, Antony Blinken, to cancel a Sunday-Monday trip to Beijing both countries had hoped would steady their rocky relations.

China has said it was a weather balloon that had blown off course into US airspace and accused the US of overreacting.

The White House has downplayed any drastic effect the incident would have on US-China relations. 

US President Joe Biden said on Monday the issue had not weakened relations.

When Austin met Wei in November in Cambodia, he emphasised the need to improve crisis communications.

No US defense secretary since Jim Mattis in 2018 has visited China.

Despite tensions between the US and China, US military officials have long sought to maintain open lines of communication with their Chinese counterparts to mitigate the risk of potential flare-ups or deal with any accidents.

But China has turned down Austin’s requests to talk in the past, before they eventually met for the first time in June 2022.

Relations between China and the US have been tense, with friction between the world’s two largest economies over everything from Taiwan and China’s human rights record to its military activity in the South China Sea.

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