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As the United States Navy fished a downed Chinese “spy” balloon from the Atlantic, the Chinese Embassy asked New Zealand officials to meet.
Details of the meeting, released under the Official Information Act, give insight into China’s diplomatic efforts to compete with the US version of events as the balloon saga unfolded.
The details were contained in an email sent across New Zealand’s foreign posts, which also shows Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta is planning a trip to China – although exactly when remains unknown, as her office declined to comment.
According to the February 7 email, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials met with the Chinese Embassy’s counsellor Wang Genhua, at the senior official’s request, to speak about the balloon and Mahuta’s visit.
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The diplomat reiterated China’s view of the incident: “China had an airship that that [sic] was a ‘civil aircraft’ conducting meteorological research”.
“Strong westerlies (force majeure) had forced the airship off its planned course.”
Both the US and Canada have said the balloon was a surveillance aircraft. The US shot down the balloon, which travelled across the country, on February 4 once it was over the ocean. In response, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken cancelled a planned trip to Beijing.
It has been widely reported US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman briefed 150 foreign diplomats from 40 embassies in Washington DC on the balloon incident, on February 6.
In response to Wang’s view of the matter, New Zealand officials reported saying at the meeting it was a “regrettable incident and a concerning development”.
“We understand US concerns regarding this incident, including in relations to the balloon entering their airspace.”
New Zealand’s ambassador in Beijing, Grahame Morton, was said to have also raised “a number of questions” with Chinese officials.
“It is in everyone’s interests that the US-China relationship is manage in a way that reduces friction. It is really important that China and the US continue to engage,” the officials reported saying.
Portions of the account of the conversation were redacted.
A “mutually agreeable time” for Mahuta to visit China was being worked on, according to the email.
Mahuta’s office declined to comment on the prospective trip this week.
Ten days after Chinese embassy officials met with Mfat officials, China’s Ambassador to New Zealand, Wang Xiaolong, sent a letter to a wide list of “Kiwi friends”, including journalists, titled “Much hot air about nothing? Some observations on the balloon saga”. The letter repeated China’s claims.