Biden avoids questions on Chinese balloon as Blinken cancels trip

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President Joe Biden on Friday declined to answer questions about the detection of a Chinese surveillance balloon over Montana after delivering remarks on the addition of 517,000 new jobs to the US economy last month.

Speaking from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Mr Biden told reporters he wouldn’t answer questions about anything other than the Labor Department report because doing so would keep reporters from writing about the positive jobs numbers.

Mr Biden’s appearance at the White House came just minutes after it became known that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had postponed his planned trip to China following Beijing’s admission that it was responsible for a surveillance balloon which was spotted over Montana on Thursday.

Mr Blinken was set to travel to Beijing this weekend to meet with top Chinese officials. Planning for the visit began after President Joe Biden’s meeting with Xi Jinping late last year, but the discovery of the Chinese balloon has put those plans off.

Pentagon Press Secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder said in a statement late Thursday that the US government was “tracking” what he described as a “high altitude surveillance balloon” over the continental US, and was closely monitoring the airship through the North American Aerospace Defence Command.

“The balloon is currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground,” he said.

He added that similar balloons had been observed by US officials “over the past several years” and said the government “acted immediately” to prevent collection of sensitive data after it was discovered.

A spokesperson for the Chinese government admitted that Beijing is responsible for the balloon, which he claimed was a “civilian airship” meant for climate research.

White House officials said Mr Biden was briefed on the balloon after it was detected but after consulting with Pentagon officials decided not to order it shot down because of the possibility that debris from the airship, which is as large as several commercial busses, would harm Americans on the ground.

With additional reporting by agencies