US shoots down Chinese 'spy balloon' off S. Carolina coast
The US has shot down a Chinese balloon that had been floating over the mainland for days. China has claimed the US overreacted by downing what it said was a civilian aircraft and threatened repercussions.
The US on Saturday downed a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon first spotted above sensitive areas of Montana earlier in the week.
"We successfully took it down, and I want to compliment our aviators who did it," US President Joe Biden said, adding that he had authorized the downing of the balloon on Wednesday.
Television footage appeared to capture the moment the balloon was hit, with it visibly disintegrating and starting to lose altitude. US military jets flew in the vicinity, alongside ships in an effort to recover the debris.
The balloon was shot down over relatively shallow water. Officials said a recovery operation is now underway to retrieve the debris and key elements of the purported Chinese surveillance equipment over the coming days.
The US formally notified China of the shootdown on Saturday, the Reuters news agency cited a US official as saying.
A senior US administration official pushed back on Chinese claims that the balloon was for "civilian use" and accidently crossed the United States.
"This was a PRC surveillance balloon," an anonymous official told CNN. "This surveillance balloon purposely traversed the United States and Canada and we are confident it was seeking to monitor sensitive military sites."
How did China react to the downing of the balloon?
China expressed "strong dissatisfaction" with the US use of force to strike its "unmanned civilian" airship, calling it a "serious violation of international practice." In a statement by the Foreign Ministry on Sunday, Beijing threatened repercussions over the incident.
"China will resolutely uphold the relevant company's legitimate rights and interests, and at the same time reserve the right to take further actions in response," the Foreign Ministry's statement said.
The Chinese Defense Ministry said it "reserves the right to use necessary means to deal with similar situations," though it was unclear exactly what type of situation it meant.
In a statement on Saturday, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said it was brought down over the water off the South Carolina coast using US fighter aircraft. He added that the balloon attempted "to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States."
Austin said Biden had approved a military plan to shoot it down the moment it no longer posed a threat to US lives. The downing of the balloon was coordinated with and supported by the Canadian Government.
"Today's deliberate and lawful action demonstrates that President Biden and his national security team will always put the safety and security of the American people first while responding effectively to the PRC's unacceptable violation of our sovereignty," the defense secretary said, referring to the People's Republic of China.
Airspace restrictions were a clue for the operation
Air traffic had been suspended on Saturday near the balloon's location, shortly before it was shot down. The US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) said it had temporarily blocked civilian flights within 100 square miles over the Atlantic Ocean and the South Carolina coast.
In the document posted on its website, the FAA warned pilots that the military could use deadly force if airplanes violate restrictions and do not comply with orders to leave.
An initial suggestion to shoot the suspected "spy balloon" down with F-22 fighter jets was turned down by the military, citing the risk posed by falling debris as greater than the perceived threat of the balloon itself.
However, those comments were made about the prospect of shooting it down over US soil, with its wreckage likely crashing onto land, not into the sea.
On Saturday morning, the balloon was reportedly spotted above the Carolinas, making its way toward the Atlantic.
Police in South Carolina acknowledged its presence and urged people not to try to take matters into their own hands, saying their weapons' bullets would not reach the high-altitude balloon, but that they would fall back to the ground.
Shortly before, Biden had said of the balloon: "We're going to take care of it."
First seen earlier this week, the balloon incident caused US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a high-stakes visit to Beijing, which aimed to ease the increasing tensions between the two countries.
China has maintained that the balloon was used for "civilian" meteorological purposes that deviated off course "due to the influence of westerly winds and its limited control capability."
What did China say about Blinken's visit?
Responding to a question about Blinken's decision to postpone his visit, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman denied that a visit was announced at all. He nevertheless said that maintaining contact "at all levels" was important, adding that the Chinese and US presidents had agreed on that during a rare meeting in Bali last November.
The spokesman reiterated once more the country's denial that the balloon was floated for surveillance purposes, describing it as a "civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological purposes" in a Foreign Ministry statement on Saturday.
He said that China acted in accordance with international law and respected the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries.
"Some politicians and media in the US have hyped it up to attack and smear China. The Chinese side is firmly opposed to that," he said.
rmt/msh (AP, Reuters)