China Rejects Pentagon Phone Call After Spy Balloon Shoot-Down

Beijing has rejected Washington's request for a phone call between their respective defense chiefs in the days after a high-altitude balloon from China was shot down for violating U.S. airspace, the Department of Defense said Tuesday.

The request for a secure call between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe was sent on Saturday, "immediately after" the balloon was downed over U.S. territorial waters off South Carolina, but has since been declined, according to Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder.

"We believe in the importance of maintaining open lines of communication between the United States and the [People's Republic of China] in order to responsibly manage the relationship. Lines between our militaries are particularly important in moments like this," Ryder said in a press statement. "Our commitment to open lines of communication will continue."

The two governments remain at loggerheads after the 200-foot tall aircraft, which Washington assessed with confidence to be a surveillance balloon, traversed Alaska's remote Aleutian Islands, Canada and the continental U.S. last week.

China Rejects Call With Pentagon' Lloyd Austin
China's defence minister, Wei Fenghe, fourth right, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, left, attend the ministerial roundtable luncheon at the Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore on June 11, 2022. ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Beijing continues to argue the U.S. downed a weather-monitoring civilian airship in an "obvious overreaction."

China's foreign ministry, which lodged a number of protests over the widely watched shoot-down, said Monday that Beijing had "maintained communication with the U.S. and made a great effort to handle this matter in a responsible way."

"The unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace is totally unexpected and isolated. It is, however, a test of the U.S.'s sincerity about stabilizing and improving its relations with China and its approach to crisis management," ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told a regular media briefing in Beijing.

Asked about China's rejection of the Pentagon call on Wednesday, Mao referred questions to the Chinese defense ministry.

Austin and Wei last met in person in November in Cambodia, after sitting down for their first talks last June in Singapore.

U.S. officials don't believe Austin and Wei hold equivalent positions in their respective governments, and have in the past been stonewalled when attempting to reach more senior leaders in the Communist Party's Central Military Commission.

"The White House has confirmed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this spy balloon was part of a multi-year PRC surveillance program directed against America's most sensitive military installations. It's presence in U.S. airspace, without the expressed permission of the U.S. government, represents a clear violation of international law," said Craig Singleton, senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan think tank.

Although Beijing declined the Austin-Wei call, American and Chinese officials, at both executive and embassy levels, were in contact since early last week, before the balloon became public knowledge.

China's foreign ministry said it "provided relevant information to the U.S. on multiple occasions."

"This incident clearly demonstrates that, despite rhetoric to the contrary, functioning backchannels do in fact exist between the highest levels of the two governments, and that those crisis lines can be quickly leveraged to communicate during an emergency. That's a relief to those concerned about how an errant miscalculation could result in a military conflict between the two superpowers," Singleton told Newsweek.

"It's also a reminder that the U.S. need not engage with China for the sake of engagement. Instead, future meetings should only occur on the basis of strict reciprocity in China's behavior. That should include a clear, earnest apology from Beijing, which badly erred here, and a commitment from China that it will not violate America's territorial integrity in the future," he said.

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