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China to 'Safeguard Interests'         02/07 06:12

   

   BEIJING (AP) -- China said Tuesday it will "resolutely safeguard its 
legitimate rights and interests" over the shooting down of a suspected Chinese 
spy balloon by the United States, as relations between the two countries 
deteriorate further.

   The balloon prompted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a 
highly-anticipated visit to Beijing this week that had offered slight hopes for 
an improvement in relations.

   China claims it was a civilian balloon used for meteorological research but 
has refused to say to which government department or company it belongs.

   Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning on Tuesday reiterated that the 
"unmanned airship" posed no threat and entered U.S. airspace accidentally.

   Mao again criticized the U.S. for overreacting rather than adopting a "calm, 
professional" manner, and for using force in bringing the balloon down Saturday 
in the Atlantic Ocean just off the U.S. coast.

   Asked if China wanted the debris returned, she only reasserted that the 
balloon "belongs to China."

   "The balloon does not belong to the U.S. The Chinese government will 
continue to resolutely safeguard its legitimate rights and interests," Mao said 
at a daily briefing without giving further details.

   Beijing's attitude has hardened considerably following a surprisingly mild 
initial response on Friday, in which it described the balloon's presence as an 
accident and expressed "regret" for the balloon having entered the U.S.

   Subsequent statements have grown firmer, in the same tone used to confront 
the U.S. over issues from Taiwan to trade, technology restrictions and China's 
claim to the South China Sea. China says it lodged a formal complaint with the 
U.S. Embassy in Beijing, accusing Washington of having "obviously overreacted 
and seriously violated the spirit of international law and international 
practice."

   Recent developments have laid bare the extremely fragile nature of what many 
had hoped could be a manageable economic, political and military rivalry.

   U.S.-China tensions have stirred deep concern in Washington and among many 
of its allies. They worry that outright conflict could have a strong negative 
impact on the global economy, especially since Russia's invasion of Ukraine 
last year, on which China has largely sided with Moscow.

   Balloons either suspected of or confirmed to be Chinese have been spotted 
over countries from Japan to Costa Rica. Taiwanese media have reported that 
mysterious white balloons had been spotted over the island at least three times 
in the past two years.

   That's especially concerning because China claims Taiwan as its own 
territory to be brought under its control by force if necessary and routinely 
sends warships and military aircraft into the island's air defense 
identification zone and across the middle line of the Taiwan Strait dividing 
the sides.

   Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense has never explicitly linked the 
balloons to China. However, the recent furor over the Chinese balloon in the 
U.S. brought attention back to these mysterious sightings.

   The size of the Chinese balloon in the U.S., as well as the equipment 
attached to it, had all drawn intense speculation as to its purpose. Along with 
Washington, most security experts dismissed Beijing's assertions that the 
balloon was intended for meteorological rather than spying purposes.

   But it doesn't look like any weather balloon that Cheng Ming-dian, head of 
Taiwan's Central Weather Bureau, has seen.

   "In the meteorology world, I haven't found a person who has seen or heard of 
a weather balloon that looks like this," Cheng said.

   While China has in recent months moderated the abrasive tone of its 
diplomacy, it is "still pursuing those broader, long-term strategic agendas on 
the economic, tech and security fronts," said Collin Koh Swee Lean research 
fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at Singapore's Nanyang 
Technological University.

   "In other words, if you cast the change in rhetoric aside, we're in fact not 
seeing any real meaningful improvement in the extant China-U.S. relations, 
which will continue to be dominated by rivalry," Koh said. "And the latest spy 
balloon incident only looks set to broaden the schism."

 
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