China says refused US call because atmosphere not ‘proper’

BEIJING (AP) — China’s Defense Ministry says it refused a call from U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin following the shooting down of an alleged Chinese spy balloon because the U.S. had “not created the proper atmosphere” for dialogue and exchange.

The U.S. action had “seriously violated international norms and set a pernicious precedent,” ministry spokesperson Tan Kefei was quoted as saying in a statement issued late Thursday.

“Given that this irresponsible and seriously wrong approach by the U.S. did not create the proper atmosphere for dialogue and exchanges between the two militaries, China did not accept the U.S. proposal for a phone call between the two defense ministers,” Tan said.

China, Tan added, “reserves the right to use necessary means to deal with similar situations.”

China insists the object was a civilian weather balloon that had been blown off course, but has not said who it belonged to or offered other details.

After initially expressing “regret” over the incident, China’s rhetoric has hardened in recent days as the FBI gathers debris from the site of the downing in U.S. territorial waters off the coast of South Carolina and sends it to the FBI’s lab in Quantico, Virginia for investigation.

Beijing said the U.S. “overreacted” by shooting it down. The Foreign Ministry has labeled the action “irresponsible” and calls U.S. claims that it was spying “part of the U.S. side’s information warfare against China.”

Austin had sought on Saturday to discuss the balloon issue with his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe, but was refused, the Pentagon said.

In the wake of the incident, Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a planned trip to Beijing this week that some had hoped would help stabilize bilateral relations, which have fallen to their lowest level in decades.

The U.S. has flatly contradicted China’s version of events, saying that imagery of the balloon collected by American U-2 spy planes as it crossed the country showed that it was “capable of conducting signals intelligence collection” with multiple antennas and other equipment designed to upload sensitive information and solar panels to power them.

The U.S. says the balloon was part of a huge, military-linked aerial surveillance program that targeted more than 40 countries under the direction of the People’s Liberation Army. Similar balloons have sailed over five continents, according to the administration.

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