The US military shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the coast of Carolina on Saturday after it passed over sensitive military sites in North America. China insisted the flyover was an accident involving a civilian aircraft and threatened repercussions.
US President Joe Biden issued the order but wanted the balloon shot down even earlier, on Wednesday. It was told that the best time for the operation would be when it was over the water, US officials said. Military officials determined that shooting it down on the ground from an altitude of 60,000 feet would pose an undue risk to people on the ground.
China responded that it reserved the right to “take further action” and criticized the United States for “an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice.”
In its statement on Sunday, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that “China will resolutely uphold the legitimate rights and interests of the relevant company and, at the same time, reserve the right to take additional measures in response.”
The balloon’s presence in US skies this week dealt a heavy blow to already strained US-China relations, which have been on a downward spiral for years. It prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to abruptly cancel a high-risk trip to Beijing meant to ease tensions.
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“They successfully shot it down and I want to congratulate our Airmen who did it,” Biden said after getting off Air Force One en route to Camp David.
The giant white orb was seen Saturday morning over the Carolinas as it neared the Atlantic coast. At around 2:39 p.m. EST, an F-22 fighter jet fired a missile at the balloon, piercing it while it was about 6 nautical miles offshore near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, senior defense officials said. .
The spectacle had Americans staring at the sky all week, wondering if the mysterious balloon had floated above them.
On Saturday, Ashlyn Preaux, 33, went out to get her mail in Forestbrook, South Carolina, and noticed her neighbors looking up, and there it was, the balloon in the cloudless blue sky. She then saw fighter jets circling and hitting the balloon.
“I didn’t anticipate waking up to be in a ‘Top Gun’ movie today,” he said.
The debris fell into 47 feet of water, less than officials expected, and spread out about seven miles and the recovery operation included multiple boats. Officials estimated that recovery efforts would be completed in a short time, not weeks. A salvage ship was on its way.
US military and defense officials said Saturday that the balloon entered the US air defense zone north of the Aleutian Islands on January 28 and moved largely overland across Alaska. and then into Canadian airspace over the Northwest Territories on Monday. He crossed back into US territory over northern Idaho on Tuesday, the day the White House said Biden was first briefed on it.
The balloon was seen Thursday over Montana, home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, which has nuclear missile silo fields.
The Americans were able to gather intelligence on the balloon as it flew over the US, giving them several days to analyze it and learn how it moved and what it was capable of monitoring, two senior defense officials said. The officials briefed the journalists on condition of anonymity.
The officials said the US military was constantly assessing the threat and concluded that the technology on the balloon did not give China significant intelligence beyond what it could already get from satellites, although the US took measures to mitigate the information it could collect. moved along.
Republicans criticized Biden’s response.
“Allowing a Communist Party of China spy balloon to travel across the entire continental United States before questioning its presence is a disastrous projection of White House weakness,” said Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, the top Republican in the Armed Forces of the Senate. Committee.
Sen. Thom Tillis, RN.C., tweeted: “Now that this embarrassing episode is over, we need answers from the Biden Administration on the decision-making process. Communist China was allowed to violate American sovereignty unimpeded for days. We must be better prepared for future CCP provocations and incursions.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, RS.C., was more positive: “Thank you to the men and women of the United States military who were responsible for completing the mission to shoot down the Chinese surveillance balloon. The Biden Administration did the right thing in taking him down.”
China has claimed the balloon was simply a weather research “blimp” that had blown off course. The Pentagon rejected that out of hand, as well as China’s claim that it was not being used for surveillance and had only limited navigational capabilities.
On Saturday, the Chinese government tried to downplay the cancellation of Blinken’s trip. “Actually, the US and China have never announced any visit, making such an announcement is their business and we respect it,” China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The Pentagon also acknowledged reports of a second balloon flying over Latin America. “We now assess that it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s press secretary, said in a statement. Officials said the balloons are part of a fleet China uses for surveillance and can be remotely maneuvered via small motors and propellers. An official said they carry equipment in the capsule below the balloon that is not generally associated with standard meteorological activities or civilian research.
China’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a question about the second balloon.
This is not the first time Chinese spy balloons have crossed US airspace in recent years, one of the officials said. At least three times during the Trump administration and at least one other time during Biden’s time as president, they have seen balloons fly by, but not for that long, the official said.
Blinken, who was scheduled to leave Washington for Beijing on Friday night, said he had told senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in a phone call that sending the balloon over the United States was “an irresponsible act and that (China’s) decision ) to take this step on the eve of my visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions we were prepared to have.”
The uncensored reactions on the Internet in China reflected the official government position that the United States was exaggerating the situation. Some used it as an opportunity to mock US defenses, saying it couldn’t even fend off a balloon, and influential nationalists used the news to mock the US.
China has denied any espionage claim and said it is a civilian-use balloon intended for meteorological research. The Foreign Office stressed that the balloon ride was out of its control and urged the US not to “stain” it because of the balloon.
In preparation for Saturday’s operation, the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily closed airspace over the Carolina coast, including the airports in Myrtle Beach and Charleston, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina. The FAA diverted air traffic from the area and warned of delays as a result of flight restrictions. The FAA and Coast Guard worked to clear the airspace and water below the balloon as it reached the ocean.
TV footage showed a small explosion, followed by the giant deflated balloon falling like a ribbon into the water.
Bill Swanson said he watched the balloon deflate instantly from his Myrtle Beach home as fighter jets circled.
“When it deflated it was almost instantaneous,” he said. “One second it’s there like a little moon and the next second it’s gone.” Swanson added that a trail of smoke followed the balloon as it fell.