WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden says he will talk to his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in the wake of the US Air Force shooting down what Washington says was a high-tech Chinese spy balloon earlier this month.
"I expect to be speaking with President Xi and... we're going to get to the bottom of this," Biden said in his most extensive public remarks since the incident on February 4.
While stressing that the United States is "not looking for a new Cold War," Biden said he made "no apologies for taking down that balloon."
"We'll always act to protect the interests of the American people and the security of the American people," Biden said.
The United States has been in a state of alarm since a huge white balloon from China was spotted tracking over a series of top-secret nuclear weapons sites before being shot down just off the east coast.
In the wake of the incident, the US military adjusted radar settings to detect smaller objects and promptly discovered three more unidentified craft that Biden ordered shot down — one over Alaska, another over Canada and the third over Lake Huron off Michigan.
China says the balloon was just a stray weather research craft, but US officials say they have conclusive evidence that the balloon was sent to spy.
The incident has prompted a diplomatic rift, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken abruptly cancelling a rare visit to China. Beijing accused Washington of overreacting and claimed that US balloons had overflown Chinese territory, something the Biden administration denies.
Biden drew a clear distinction between the Chinese balloon and the three smaller objects shot down later.
"We don't yet know exactly what these three objects were," Biden said.
He added that "nothing right now suggests they're related to China's spy balloon program," while the US intelligence community's current assessment is that they are "most likely balloons tied to private companies" or research projects.
However, "if any object presents a threat to the safety, security (of) the American people, I will take it down," Biden said.
Biden has made a priority of resetting US relations with China, which he describes as Washington's biggest competitor.
But tensions flared last year after Nancy Pelosi, then the leader of the US House of Representatives, visited Taiwan — the self-governing democracy claimed by Beijing.
Since Pelosi's visit and Beijing's major military exercises in response, Biden and Xi have said they want to establish "guard rails" to prevent their superpower competition from turning into conflict.
That project may be tested again soon, with a high-level Pentagon official reportedly planning to visit Taiwan in the coming days.
Michael Chase, the US Department of Defense's top official on China, will travel to Taiwan after his current visit to Mongolia, the Financial Times reported Thursday evening.
A Pentagon spokesperson declined to comment on the report, but told AFP that the US "support for, and defence relationship with, Taiwan remains aligned against the current threat posed by the People's Republic of China."
"Our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid and contributes to the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and within the region," added Lieutenant Colonel Marty Meiners.
Taiwanese Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng told reporters Friday morning that he "can't confirm now" any upcoming trips by US officials, but said he would "welcome any group or country who has constructive suggestions on how to make Taiwan's defence stronger."
Biden said that his administration had been "continuing to engage with China" throughout the balloon saga.
"We seek competition, not conflict," he reiterated.
"This episode underscores the importance of maintaining open lines of communication between our diplomats and our military professionals."
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