SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Good morning, everyone. And thanks for joining this call at somewhat short notice. We want to take advantage of the opportunity to discuss and to explain for you the postponement of the Secretary’s planned travel to the People’s Republic of China.
This call will be on background. You can attribute what you hear to senior State Department officials. This call will also be embargoed. It will be embargoed until the conclusion of the call. Just for your background and not for reporting purposes, we’re joined today by [Senior State Department Official Two]. [Senior State Department Official Two], as you know, is [title redacted]. [Senior State Department Official Two] will have some opening remarks at the top and then we’ll take a few of your questions.
So, with that, [Senior State Department Official Two].
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you, [Senior State Department Official One]. And thank you, everyone, for joining us. Following the meeting between President Biden and President Xi in Bali last November, the State Department and other agencies engaged intensively with PRC counterparts to prepare for an important and substantive trip by Secretary Blinken to Beijing, this month. The Secretary was prepared to depart for Beijing tonight, to take on a wide-ranging agenda that would have encompassed all elements of the relationship.
Yesterday, the Department of Defense released a statement saying that it has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States. The U.S. Government, to include NORAD, continues to track and monitor it closely. Once the balloon was detected, the U.S. Government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.
We’ve directly communicated with the PRC Government through multiple levels about this issue. The Secretary and Deputy Secretary conveyed this message clearly and directly to the PRC’s senior Washington-based official on Wednesday evening. That same message was delivered at senior levels in Beijing. Senior department officials also engaged close allies to inform them of the presence of the surveillance asset in our airspace.
We have noted the PRC statement of regret. But the presence of this balloon in our airspace is a clear violation of our sovereignty, as well as international law, and it is unacceptable that this has occurred. After consultations with our interagency partners, as well as with Congress, we have concluded that the conditions are not right at this moment for Secretary Blinken to travel to China.
We believe in diplomacy to responsibly manage the most complex bilateral relationship we have. We are committed to maintaining open lines with the PRC, at all times, including during this incident. The Secretary conveyed to the Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Office, Wang Yi, earlier this morning that the trip would need to be postponed. But the Secretary indicated that he would plan to travel to the PRC at the earliest opportunity when conditions allow.
In the meantime, we will maintain open lines of communication with the PRC to address our concerns about this ongoing incident and to responsibly manage the competition between our countries.
That’s the end of our opening statement. Thank you very much.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Great. Operator, if you wouldn’t mind repeating the instructions to ask a question.
OPERATOR: Certainly. To ask a question, you may press the 1 followed by 0. Repeating the command will remove you from queue, 1 and then 0. Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We’ll start with the line of Matt Lee.
QUESTION: Thanks, [Senior State Department Official One] and [Senior State Department Official Two]. I’m just wondering, was there – I know there was a lot of back-and-forth, a lot of debate, about whether to go ahead with this trip, starting yesterday afternoon or maybe even before. But after the statement that you just mentioned, the statement of contrition, I’m wondering if it – why did that not have any impact?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Look, Matt, I’ll reiterate what I said a moment ago. We do acknowledge – we note the PRC’s statement of regret, but again, the presence of this balloon in our airspace is clearly unacceptable and a clear violation of our sovereignty. And our clear assessment was that under these current conditions it wouldn’t be constructive to visit Beijing at this time. But I’ll also reiterate that this is a postponement, and the Secretary plans to travel at the earliest appropriate opportunity when conditions allow.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Let’s go to the line of Humeyra Pamuk.
QUESTION: Hello. Thank you for doing this. Can I just ask: Where does this leave the U.S.‑China relationship which has already been pretty strained? Is this a crisis or can you say this incident didn’t change anything? And do you believe in the Chinese explanation that this was a civilian airship for scientific purposes? And what is U.S. assessment on what this surveillance balloon was able to get? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah. Thank you very much, Humeyra. Look, we have long stated that our relationship with the People’s Republic of China is perhaps our most consequential and complex relationship. That obviously remains true today. We have, as we always do, addressed this current situation decisively, proactively, and responsibility. And we’ll continue to do that going forward.
And as I also underscored, diplomacy will remain central to the management of this most complex relationship, and that’s why, from the Secretary on down, so many of us have been in regular and constant contact with our Chinese counterparts to convey clearly our messages and our concerns; and, again, to manage this issue in a responsible way.
I’ll reiterate what I said a moment ago. We do acknowledge China’s statement of regret regarding this incident. I’ll also state that we remain confident in our assessment of the situation and of the statement that was made by our Pentagon colleagues last night.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Go to the line of Shaun Tandon.
QUESTION: Thanks, [Senior State Department Official Two]. Thanks for doing this call. Could I actually pursue some questions from my colleagues? In terms of cooperation you’ve been seeking and the things that are on the agenda in Beijing – particularly regional issues like North Korea or Myanmar, even about the Taiwan issue – is there a concern that any dialogue in that, that the – setting the guardrails, as you often put it, could be set back by the House?
And again, if I could just take one more stab on the assessment, I mean do you believe that it was accidental, the Chinese explanation that it was unintentional, to go into U.S. airspace? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thanks very much for your question, Shaun. Look, I’ll again outline our approach to the People’s Republic of China. We talk about our – the three pillars of our approach being invest, align, and compete, and at the same time, we will explore cooperation where our interests dictate. That approach has not changed, but the complexity of this relationship has also not changed. I think under the current circumstances, again, we’ve assessed would not be conducive or constructive to travel to the Beijing right now. And I think, candidly speaking, in this current environment, I think it would have significantly narrowed the agenda that we would have been able to address.
But as I underscored, we have postponed this trip for hopefully clear reasons that I’ve outlined here. We look forward to the opportunity to travel to Beijing when conditions allow. And I will underscore, I think as is demonstrated by the fact that the Secretary has been in touch with Wang Yi this morning, I’m confident that our channels of communication will remain as important as ever. And those channels do remain open.
I’ll also reiterate what I said a moment ago. We note China’s statement of regret. We remain confident in our assessment of the situation.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We’ll go to the line of Edward Wong.
QUESTION: Hi. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about prior instances in which these balloons were spotted in the U.S. Partly that’s tied to whether you think the – when the Secretary communicated the Chinese side, did they acknowledge that they had sent this particular balloon and any prior instances of it? It just seems strange that you would cancel the trip if this had happened before and when officials are downplaying the actual severity of this type of balloon.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you, Ed. Ed, I would refer you to the statement made by the Pentagon last night, which I think addresses most of your question. And again, I’ll just review, we’ve determined that under the current circumstances, it would not be productive to visit Beijing at this time. But as I’ve indicated, diplomatic channels remain open. The Secretary plans to visit at the earliest opportunity when conditions allow.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Margaret Brennan, please.
QUESTION: Is – kind of what’s different this time, if there have been past balloons as the Pentagon said? And is postponement the extent of the diplomatic fallout?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, thank you very much, Margaret. Look, again, I think on the assessment of the situation, I’ll, again, refer you to the Pentagon’s statement. I think it would not be productive for me to predict what may or may not happen in the future, but what I can state with confidence is that from the moment this incident occurred we have been in regular and frequent contact with our Chinese counterparts. And I do anticipate that will continue.
Again, the Secretary and the Deputy Secretary met with the senior embassy official here in Washington – I believe it was two evenings ago. Myself and other colleagues have been in frequent contact with senior Chinese counterparts also in Washington and Beijing. We’re confident that that will continue and that – again, we engage in those diplomatic activities so that we can manage this relationship responsibly and so that we can manage challenges such as this current one in a responsible fashion. We’ll continue to do so.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: And Margaret, I’ll add one point. You asked what’s different this time. As [Senior State Department Official Two] said, we’d refer you to the Department of Defense to speak to the details of that, but we can point out one element that’s different this time. This is the first time it’s happened on the eve of a planned secretary of state visit to the PRC. As [Senior State Department Official Two] alluded to, we had a broad, substantive agenda in mind. We had a hope for constructive engagement on all three – on all elements of our bilateral relationship.
Of course, this issue would have narrowed that agenda in a way that would have been unhelpful and unconstructive. But as [Senior State Department Official Two] said multiple times, we’re committed to maintaining open lines of communication, and the Secretary will look forward to travel to the PRC at the earliest opportunity when conditions once again allow.
We’ll go to the line of Kylie Atwood.
QUESTION: I’m just wondering if you guys could describe what conditions need to be met for this trip to be rescheduled. You say that Blinken would travel at the earliest opportunity when conditions allow. So, what are those conditions? And are there specific things that you’re asking the Chinese to do with this spy balloon? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you, Kylie. Look, I think it’s safe to say that we will assess, and we will determine, when the conditions are right for future travel to Beijing. And, of course, we’ll do that as we continue to communicate with our Chinese counterparts as well. I think it might be best if I don’t get into all of the details of our diplomatic communications, but I will underscore we have been crystal clear with our Chinese counterparts that this was an unacceptable and irresponsible incident. And we have been clear about, again, our concerns and our expectations. I’m confident that that will continue, and I’m confident that given that our diplomatic channels remain open, we’ll continue to address this manner forthrightly – this matter forthrightly.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Take a couple final questions. Vivian Salama.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you so much for doing this call. So, I am – I’m touching upon previously asked questions, but I was hoping to press a little more on the demarche and the conversations with Chinese diplomats here. There have been consulates closed for probably less or equal violations of – of accusations of spying. You described it as a violation of U.S. sovereignty, which is a very stark accusation.
And so, I’m wondering how – what comes next as far as do – are you going to allow the Chinese Government to continue to operate diplomatically here in country as was prior to this, or is there going to be some consequences as far as – perhaps scaling down on the Chinese diplomats who are in country or anything like that? Can we expect to see some further announcements, with regard to the diplomatic relations and their embassies here and their consulates? Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you for your question. I would not describe the violation of U.S. sovereignty in this incident as an accusation. I would describe it as a statement of fact. There is a Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon currently over the United States. It is a clear and unacceptable violation of U.S. sovereignty, and we have made that crystal clear, and we’ll continue to do so in our regular communications with our Chinese counterparts.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Take a final question from Demetri Sevastopulo.
QUESTION: Thanks. Morning, [Senior State Department Official Two]. It’s really unusual for China to express regret for (inaudible), so one question: How do you interpret that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Demetri, thank you. Again, as I stated, we note, and we acknowledge that China has issued this statement of regret. At the same time, as I’ve indicated, we remain confident in our assessment, and our concerns about this clear violation of our sovereignty and airspace remain. I’m also confident we’ll continue to maintain constant contact with our Chinese counterparts as we work to manage this in the most responsible and expeditious fashion possible.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Great. Many thanks, [Senior State Department Official Two]. Many thanks to all who tuned in. For those who didn’t hear at the top or for those who need a reminder, this call was on background to senior State Department officials, and the embargo is now lifted. Thanks very much.