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Blinken describes confronting China about spy balloon, warns against military support for Russia

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(WASHINGTON) — Over an hourlong conversation this weekend, the top diplomats from China and the U.S. zigzagged through an agenda filled with contentious topics, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken issuing blunt warnings to his counterpart regarding Beijing’s expansive spy balloon program and fears the country could step up its support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“We had a very direct, very clear conversation about the Chinese surveillance balloon being sent over our territory in violation of our sovereignty, in violation of international law,” Blinken told ABC “This Week” co-anchor Martha Raddatz in an interview just after his closed-door talk. “I told Wang Yi, my Chinese counterpart, that that action was unacceptable and must never happen again.”

The meeting, which came together in the late hours of Saturday evening on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, was the first in-person interaction between Blinken and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi since a suspected Chinese surveillance aircraft was spotted hovering over American airspace, prompting Blinken to scuttle plans for a visit to Beijing at the last minute.

The lengthy discussion showcased deep fractures between the two superpowers and prompted fears that what’s often described as the world’s most consequential bilateral relationship could be deteriorating to dangerous lows.

On “This Week” on Sunday, Blinken also made clear that U.S. concerns about China extend beyond espionage, saying he had voiced his “growing concern” that Beijing may be considering providing military aid to Russia to support its ongoing invasion of Ukraine, a focal point of the summit in Munich.

“China has been engaged in providing rhetorical, political, diplomatic support to Russia,” Blinken said. “But we have information that gives us concern that they are considering providing lethal support to Russia in the war against Ukraine. And it was important for me to share very clearly with Wang Yi that this would be a serious problem.”

Whether Wang will heed that warning remains unclear. U.S. officials, including Blinken, were hesitant to characterize China’s side of the conversation but said that no apology was offered for the surveillance balloon incident.

In fact, in the days since the aircraft was shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4, China has only doubled down on its claims that the balloon was a harmless, unmanned civilian vehicle — an explanation that directly conflicts with U.S. assessments.

In the hours before his meeting with Blinken, Wang described the Biden administration’s response as “absurd and hysterical.”

Raddatz pressed Blinken on the view among some U.S. officials that the path the balloon took over the continental United States may not have been the original plan.

“Martha, I can’t speak to their original intent,” Blinken said. But he stressed that once the balloon was over the country, “the balloon attempted to surveil very critical, important military installations.”

In an initial readout of Wang’s engagement with Blinken, Beijing said Wang “expressed China’s solemn position on the so-called airship incident, demanding that the United States change its course and face up to and solve the damage caused by the indiscriminate use of force.”

A subsequent readout provided by China’s Foreign Ministry took a sterner view of both the balloon altercation and China’s ties to Russia.

“If the US continues to dramatize, hype up or escalate the situation, it will be met in kind for as long as it takes. All consequences arising thereof shall be borne by the US side,” Chinese officials said of the balloon.

The officials said that in Wang’s meeting with Blinken, on Russia and Ukraine, Wang “stressed … China adheres to principles and stays committed to promoting peace talks.” The Chinese said their relationship with Russia was a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination” but insisted it “is built on the basis of non-alliance, non-confrontation and non-targeting of third countries.”

In the days that followed the balloon shoot-down earlier this month, the State Department declassified intelligence that China has overflown surveillance balloons above 40 countries, something Blinken said on “This Week” was top of mind for many officials in Munich.

“There’s a real concern that I’m hearing here from other countries, from allies and partners alike, about this program. And I think countries are — I was gonna say ‘pleased,’ pleased is the wrong word — they appreciate the fact that we’ve exposed it,” Blinken told Raddatz.

Another key focus of the conference was sustaining support for Ukraine as the country girds itself for another Russian offensive.

Kyiv has requested F-16 fighter jets, and while the U.S. hasn’t ruled out the possibility, Blinken signaled the administration wasn’t ready to hand over the aircraft just yet.

“We’re in very close collaboration and coordination with the Ukrainians precisely on this question of what do they need at any given time. But what’s very important is this: What we should not do, any of us, is to focus or get fixated on any particular weapons system because the weapon system itself, as important as it is, is not is not sufficient. You have to make sure that Ukrainians are trained on the systems that are being provided,” Blinken said. “If they’re not trained on them, they can’t use them.”

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