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China reacts to the U.S. shooting down a suspected spy balloon

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The balloon may be popped, but the saga continues. Yesterday afternoon, a U.S. F-22 fighter jet took aim and fired a missile that successfully brought down what U.S. officials say was a Chinese spy balloon. Here's President Biden afterwards.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: They successfully took it down. And I want to compliment our aviators who did it.

RASCOE: Today, China angrily called that an overreaction. NPR's Emily Feng joins us now for more. Hi, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So can you tell us more about China's reaction to this situation?

FENG: You know what? Somewhat unusually, China, at first, took the soft tone. They admitted the balloon was theirs, but they said it was purely a civilian research airship. It said it regretted the airship had been blown off course and that it had ended up in U.S. airspace, accidentally. Then this weekend, as you mentioned, the U.S. shot the balloon down. And it was shot down over water because this thing was so huge. It has the volume of almost three city buses, so the U.S. couldn't risk that debris falling on people.

And that was the moment when China came out with much stronger language. The Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed what they called full dissatisfaction and protest against the balloon being shot down and said this was a, quote, "violation of international practice." And then the Chinese Defense Ministry jumped in and said that they reserve the right to use, quote, "any necessary means" in response to the balloon being taken down.

RASCOE: OK. So - but of course, even before it was brought down, Secretary of State Antony Blinken had called off a planned visit to China.

FENG: Right. This is a really big deal. Secretary of State Blinken was supposed to be in China, like, literally right now as part of a diplomatic effort to patch up the U.S.-China relationship. And instead, we're at this - another critical juncture. The clock is ticking now for both countries, if they want to fix the relationship, because Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy is expected to visit Taiwan in April. This is the island that China claims as its own, and so a visit is likely going to provoke a huge reaction from China.

Now, ideally, Blinken would have already gone to China. There would have been some kind of detente in the relationship and diplomatic talks to lower the temperature globally and set a floor in the relationship before another crisis comes along. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. And now the ball is kind of in China's court to do something to make up for the balloon. But as we saw this weekend, they've taken a much more hostile tack, if you will.

RASCOE: In the about the minute we have left, what could either country do to move on from this balloon situation or, you know, are you hearing that the relationship's going to continue to deteriorate?

FENG: Well, it's a bit of an unusual situation - right? - over a balloon. But China could extend an olive branch, you know? Both countries might promise to not spy on each other with balloons again. But unfortunately, there's likely no improvement in the relationship just yet. And that's because the situation highlights how diplomats in both countries are really not fully in control of the relationship. Diplomatically, there was this will on both sides to stabilize the U.S.-China relationship. That's why Blinken was supposed to head to China. But the flashpoints in this relationship have come from outside the diplomatic establishment, from the military in the U.S. that monitored the balloon and leaked its existence to Congress - for example, the speaker of the House potentially visiting Taiwan. And so all this means we have a very unpredictable year coming up for U.S.-China relations.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Emily Feng. Thank you so much, Emily.

FENG: Thanks, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
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