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March 3, 2024

Biden seeks ‘common global norms’ for aerial objects

U.S. President Joe Biden said Thursday he would seek new “common global norms” for launching and maintaining unmanned aerial objects, following a two-week period in which U.S. forces shot down three such objects and an alleged Chinese spy balloon.

Speaking at the White House, Biden also said there was no evidence any of the three latest objects shot down in U.S. airspace were from China, but that the event “underscores the importance of maintaining open lines of communication” with Beijing.

Chinese defense officials reportedly rejected phone calls from their U.S. counterparts in the wake of the Feb. 4 shooting down of the Chinese balloon, after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also postponed a planned trip to Beijing after it was first discovered.

The turbulence in relations since has been overshadowed only by befuddlement about the objects being shot down in U.S. airspace.

Biden said that National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan would lead a “government-wide effort” to deal with aerial objects, including creating an “inventory of unmanned airborne objects in space above the United States” and improving current methods of detection.

“Third, we’ll update the rules and regulations for launching and maintaining unmanned objects in the skies above the United States of America,” he said, adding Blinken would also “lead an effort to help establish common global norms” in the “unregulated” space.

Unknown origin

Biden said intelligence indicated the three latest items shot down may be from “private companies, recreation or research institutions,” and may have in fact been amateur meteorological balloons.

“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 they were surveillance vehicles from any other country,” he said. “We’re now just seeing more of them, partially because of steps we’ve taken to increase our radars – to narrow our radars.”

The president added he remained in communication with Chinese President Xi Jinping and still wanted to “engage with China.”

“We’re not looking for a new Cold War, but I make no apologies” for the Feb. 4 balloon shooting, he said. “Our diplomats will be engaging further and I will remain in communication with President Xi.”

Beijing has denied any links to the three latest objects, while also arguing the initial balloon was a civilian meteorological aircraft. 

It says the balloon’s destruction violated the spirit of international law, and has also accused the United States of flying 10 balloons into Chinese airspace in the past year, which American officials deny.

New norms

State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters immediately after Biden’s speech Thursday that Blinken was “eager” to get top work developing new norms to govern the flight of aerial objects around the world, “whether they be balloons or otherwise.”

Patel acknowledged global protocols governing airspace already exist, but said the latest episode showed more were needed.

“It’s clear, and the president alluded to this, that given the heightened sensitivity, and our discovery of these three additional objects, that there is more for us to discuss with our allies and partners,” he said. “The secretary looks forward to that.”

He declined to comment about what Beijing needed to do for the secretary of state’s canceled trip to Beijing to go ahead.

“The secretary was pretty clear: He looks forward and intends to continue on with his visit to China when conditions allow,” he said.

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