China refused a conversation with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin following the downing of the suspected Chinese balloon, the Pentagon said in a statement Tuesday.
The Defense Department submitted a request for a call between Austin and China’s Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe immediately after the US fighter jets shot down the balloon on Saturday afternoon. But China declined the request, according to the Pentagon.
“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,” Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in the statement.
China maintains the vessel was a weather balloon thrown off course but did offer a rare expression of “regret” over it in a statement Friday.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a trip to Beijing that was due to take place last weekend over the presence of the balloon, and President Joe Biden’s decision to shoot it down has further heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing.
Beijing’s rhetoric hardened significantly after the US military shot down the balloon, with China’s Foreign Ministry accusing the US of “overreacting” and “seriously violating international practice.” The Defense Ministry, meanwhile, expressed “solemn protest,” warning China “reserves the right to use necessary means to deal with similar situations.”
On Monday, China’s Foreign Ministry said the debris of the balloon does not belong to the US. “The airship is China’s, not the US,’” a spokesperson for the ministry said at a regular news conference, when asked about whether the US should return the remnants of the balloon to China.
Austin last met his Chinese counterpart in November on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The two had also met previously in June at the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore.
In both meetings, Austin had emphasized the importance of keeping open lines of communication between the two militaries, a message Biden also conveyed in his high stakes meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in November in Bali, Indonesia.
Blinken, who was due to depart Friday night for Beijing, said at a news conference on Friday that the presence of the balloon over the continental United States “created the conditions that undermine the purpose of the trip.” He informed China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, in a call Friday morning that he was postponing.
“In my call today with Director Wang Yi, I made clear that the presence of this surveillance balloon in US airspace is a clear violation of US sovereignty and international law, that it’s an irresponsible act, and that the (People’s Republic of China) decision to take this action on the eve of my planned visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have,” Blinken told reporters Friday.
On Friday a senior State Department official said that the US has acknowledged China’s “statement of regret” but that the presence of the balloon in US airspace was “a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law, and it is unacceptable that this has occurred.”
CNN’s Jennifer Hansler, Jeremy Herb, Simone McCarthy and Nectar Gan contributed reporting.