WASHINGTON, Feb 17 (Reuters) – U.S. diplomatic communications with China remain open after the shooting down of a Chinese spy balloon this month, but contact between the countries’ militaries “unfortunately” remains shut down, the White House said on Friday.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby also said it was not the “right time” for Secretary of State Antony Blinken to travel to China after he postponed a Feb. 5-6 trip over the balloon episode, but President Joe Biden wanted to speak to Chinese President Xi Jinping when it was “appropriate.”
Kirby told a White House news briefing that U.S. and Chinese diplomats can still communicate despite tensions over the balloon incident.
“I recognize that there are tensions, but Secretary Blinken still has an open line of communication with the foreign minister. We still have an embassy in Beijing … and the State Department also can communicate directly with the PRC embassy personnel here,” he said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
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“Unfortunately, the military lines aren’t open, and that’s really what we would like to see amended,” he said.
China cut several military-to-military communication channels and other areas of bilateral dialogue after an August visit to the Chinese-claimed island of Taiwan by then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which took Washington-Beijing relations to a dangerous low.
On Thursday, Biden gave a speech focusing on the balloon incident. He said he expected to speak with Chinese leader Xi about it and hoped to get to the bottom of the affair.
In answer to a question, Kirby said Washington had not formally requested a call with Xi, but added: “That does mean it’s not going to happen, that the president … doesn’t want to talk to President Xi. He will.”
“There’s no preconditions for a call,” Kirby said. “The president will want to have a conversation with President Xi at the appropriate time.”
White House officials say Biden and Xi last spoke at a November meeting on the island of Bali and both sides saw Blinken’s Beijing trip as an opportunity for follow-up efforts to stabilize increasingly fraught ties.
Kirby’s comment came as U.S. officials have been looking at the possibility of a meeting between Blinken and China’s top diplomat Wang Yi on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference that began on Friday.
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, who is also in Munich for the conference, defended the administration’s handling of the balloon incident and the shooting down of three other unidentified objects.
“It needed to be shot down because we were confident that it was used by China to spy on American people,” she told MSNBC.
“We will maintain the perspective that we have in terms of what should be the relationship between China and the United States,” Harris said. “That is not going to change, but surely and certainly that balloon was not helpful.”
China reacted angrily when the American military shot down the 200-foot (60-meter) balloon off South Carolina on Feb. 4 after it transited the continental U.S. China said the airship was for monitoring weather conditions and had blown off course.
The United States said on Friday it had successfully concluded recovery efforts to collect sensors and other debris from the balloon and investigators were now analyzing its “guts.”
Reporting by Andrea Shalal, Heather Timmons and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Don Durfee