The United States military has shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina, a week after it entered US airspace and triggered a dramatic spying saga that worsened relations between Beijing and Washington.
President Joe Biden said on Saturday that he had issued an order on Wednesday to take down the balloon, but the Pentagon had recommended waiting until it could be done over open water to safeguard civilians from debris crashing to Earth.
The balloon had been flying at about 18,300 meters (60,000 ft).
“We successfully took it down, and I want to compliment our aviators who did it,” Biden told reporters.
Multiple fighter and refueling aircraft were involved in the mission, but just one — an F-22 fighter jet from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia — took the shot at 2:39pm local time (19:39 GMT) using a single AIM-9X supersonic, heat-seeking, air-to-air missile, a senior US military official said.
The shootdown came shortly after the US government ordered a halt to flights around the South Carolina coast due to what it said at the time was an undisclosed “national security effort”.
Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the balloon descending towards the water. The Associated Press news agency said an operation was underway in US territorial waters in the Atlantic Ocean to recover debris from the balloon.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called the operation a “deliberate and lawful action” that came in response to China’s “unacceptable violation of our sovereignty”.
He said the balloon was being used by China “in an attempt to survey strategic sites in the continental United States”.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praised the operation, tweeting, “Canada strongly supports this action — we’ll keep working together … on our security and defense.”
‘National security failure’
The balloon first entered US airspace in Alaska on January 28 before moving into Canadian airspace on Monday, January 30. It then re-entered US airspace over northern Idaho on January 31, a US defense official said. Once it crossed over US land, it did not return to the open waters, making a shootdown difficult.
US officials did not publicly disclose the balloon’s presence over the country until Thursday.
“It’s clear the Biden administration had hoped to hide this national security failure from Congress and the American people,” said US Representative Mike Rogers, a Republican who leads the House Armed Services Committee.
“Allowing a spy balloon from the Communist Party of China to travel across the entire continental United States before contesting its presence is a disastrous projection of weakness by the White House,” said Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. .
Biden’s emphasis on Saturday that he had ordered the balloon shot down as soon as possible could be an effort to respond to such critics.
Defense officials on Saturday also appeared to play down the balloon’s effect on US national security.
“Our assessment — and we’re going to learn more as we pick up the debris — was that it was not likely to provide significant additive value over and above other [Chinese] intel capability, such as satellites in low-Earth orbit,” a senior US defense official told reporters.
The Chinese balloon’s overflight of US territory was of “intelligence value to us”, they added.
China has continued to claim that the balloon was merely a weather research “airship” that had been blown off course. The Pentagon rejected that out of hand, as well as China’s contention that it was not being used for surveillance and had only limited navigational ability.
Following the announcement of the balloon’s discovery, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a visit to China that had been expected to start on Friday.
The postponement of Blinken’s trip, which had been agreed to in November by Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, is a blow to those who saw it as an overdue opportunity to stabilize an increasingly fractious relationship. The last visit by a US secretary of state was in 2017.
Beijing has been eager for a stable Washington relationship so it could focus on its economy, battered by its now-abandoned zero-COVID policy.
Earlier on Saturday, the Chinese foreign ministry played down the cancellation of the Blinken visit, saying neither side had formally announced any such plan.
“In actuality, the US and China have never announced any visit, the US making any such announcement is their own business, and we respect that,” the ministry said in a statement.
It also emphasized that the balloon’s journey was out of China’s control and urged the US not to “smear” it based on the balloon.
Senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi said China “has always strictly followed international law, we do not accept any groundless speculation and hype”. He added, “Faced with unexpected situations, both parties need to keep calm, communicate in a timely manner, avoid misjudgments and manage differences.”
The Pentagon said on Friday that another Chinese balloon was observed over Latin America without saying where exactly.
“We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Brigadier General Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement.
A spy balloon is literally a gas-filled balloon that is flying quite high in the sky, more or less where commercial airplanes are flown.
A spy balloon generally has sophisticated cameras and imaging technology, and points all of those instruments down at the ground, collecting information through photography and other imaging of whatever is on the ground below it.