As published by Tom Brenner for The New York Times.
WASHINGTON — President Biden sought to calm the furor over Chinese aerial spying on Thursday, reassuring Americans that the latest objects shot down were not tied to Beijing and announcing that he planned to speak with President Xi Jinping to keep lines of communication open.
In his first extended statement about the spate of floating craft above North America, Mr. Biden said the original Chinese spy balloon downed by an American missile on Feb. 4 represented a “violation of our sovereignty” that was “unacceptable.” But he said the three objects shot down since then were likely research balloons, not spy craft.
“We don’t yet know exactly what these three objects were, but nothing right now suggests they were related to China’s spy balloon program or that they were surveillance vehicles from any other country,” Mr. Biden said. “The intelligence community’s current assessment is that these three objects were most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions studying weather or conducting other scientific research.”
The uproar on Capitol Hill over the Chinese balloon and the three other objects in recent days has forced the White House to recalibrate its public message in response to both the domestic politics at home and the diplomatic challenge abroad. Classified briefings provided to Congress this week did little to settle lawmakers of both parties who have called for more transparency over the incidents.
Mr. Biden has been whipsawed by criticism from both directions, accused of being too slow to respond to the Chinese spy balloon as it meandered across the United States even as he was chided for overreacting to the subsequent objects that now appear to be relatively harmless, except perhaps to civilian air traffic.
The president defended his actions, saying he waited to shoot down the spy balloon until it was safely over water while later taking down the others without knowing what they were “out of an abundance of caution.” He said he has ordered his administration to develop “sharper rules” to respond to future intrusions in American airspace.
But even amid the crossfire in Washington, Mr. Biden appeared determined not to further escalate tensions with China, hoping to resume a dialogue that was upended when the spy balloon was spotted over the continental United States. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken called off a trip to Beijing once the balloon’s presence was made public, and China’s defense chief then refused to take a phone call from Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III.
“We’re also continuing to engage with China as we have throughout the past two weeks,” Mr. Biden said. “As I’ve said since the beginning of my administration, we seek competition, not conflict, with China. We’re not looking for a new Cold War, but I make no apologies, and we will compete. We will responsibly manage that competition.”
He added that “I expect to be speaking with President Xi,” but he did not say when. Shortly after his statement, Mr. Biden called Peter Alexander of NBC News and emphasized that he did not believe China wants to damage ties over the incident either. “I think the last thing that Xi wants is to fundamentally rip the relationship with the United States and with me,” the president said.
White House officials said they could not say when the call with Mr. Xi might take place. Mr. Biden’s comments, however, may also set the stage for a possible meeting this weekend between Mr. Blinken and Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official, both of whom are expected to attend the Munich Security Conference in Germany.
At the same time, Mr. Biden wanted to send a signal of resolve to Beijing. “I make no apologies for taking down that balloon,” he said.
Some Biden administration officials have speculated that China acted more aggressively with its spy balloons because it feels increasingly isolated after various developments in past few months, including a Japanese commitment to increase military spending, increased U.S. military access to bases in the Philippines, a new U.S. military technology agreement with India, a clampdown on sales of advanced computer chips to China and apparent progress toward finalizing a security agreement with Australia and Britain.
Republicans on Thursday were unsatisfied with the president’s response. “President Biden continues to lead from behind,” said Senator Steve Daines, who has been a leading critic since the Chinese spy balloon was first spotted over his home state of Montana. He added that Mr. Biden “has no plan to deal with this issue” and “is not providing for the safety and security of the American people.”
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican minority leader, complained that briefings by Biden administration officials had been uninformative. “I mean, I’ve never been in briefings where I learned so little,” Mr. McConnell said on Fox News. “If the president knows a lot more, time for him to tell us all about it, including the American people.”
His Democratic counterpart, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, said the American public wants the two parties to forgo partisan attacks over the incident. “When China is pushing the boundaries, they don’t want Democrats and Republicans pointing fingers at each other,” he said on the floor on Thursday. “They don’t want any premature attacks. They want us to come together to respond to the threats posed by the C.C.P.,” or Chinese Communist Party.
But he then went on to attack Republicans for their focus on cutting the federal budget, which Mr. Schumer said would damage American security. “The kind of cuts that MAGA Republicans are pushing would be a disaster for staying ahead on China,” he said, using former President Donald J. Trump’s acronym for Make America Great Again. “China would love to see the kind of cuts that the MAGA wing of the Republican Party is pushing.”
American authorities are still examining the remains of the Chinese spy balloon, which fell into the Atlantic Ocean off the East Coast, while American and Canadian authorities are still trying to reach the remote areas of Alaska, the Yukon Territory and Lake Huron.
The three most recent objects shot down by the Air Force were traveling at heights where commercial aircraft fly. But the spy balloon was higher, at about 60,000 feet. Mark Lewis, the former chief scientist of the Air Force, said that is “a sweet spot” for reconnaissance balloons. “If you look at wind speeds in the atmosphere, there’s kind of a low point in the 60,000- to 65,000-foot range. So it’s kind of a good place to put a balloon.”
Mr. Biden said he had directed Mr. Blinken to work with other countries to establish “common global norms in this largely unregulated space,” presumably referring to the upper atmosphere above the altitude where passenger planes typically fly. American officials have said China has floated spy balloons over 40 countries around the world.
The president said new classified parameters that he has ordered will “guide what action we take while responding to unmanned and unidentified aerial objects.” He promised to share them with Congress but not with the public so as not to give a “road map to our enemies to try to evade our defenses.”
In addition, he said he has directed Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser, to lead a governmentwide effort to address any threat to the airspace by developing a better inventory of unmanned objects above the United States, improving systems to detect them and updating rules and regulations for launching and maintaining such objects.
At times, the government’s existing task force on unidentified aerial phenomena has seemed less than a critical national security effort. But the downing of the spy balloon and the scientific research balloons has infused the work of the task force with additional importance. Some of the priorities that Mr. Biden mentioned on Thursday, like cataloging the inventory of unmanned airborne objects blowing around the skies, are items the task force has already been working on.
Even as he promised action, though, Mr. Biden tried to dispel fears that the threat of surveillance from the skies has grown recently.
“We don’t have a sudden increase of objects in the sky,” he said. “We’re just seeing more of them partially because of the steps we’ve taken to increase our radar, and we have to keep adapting our approach to dealing with these challenges.”
Julian E. Barnes and Edward Wong contributed reporting.