As the US shoots down a surveillance balloon, China fumes.
WASHINGTON: The Biden administration lauded the Pentagon for shooting down an alleged Chinese spy balloon off the US Atlantic coast on Saturday, but China angrily voiced its “strong dissatisfaction” at the move and said it may make “necessary responses”.
The craft spent several days flying over North America before it was targeted off the coast of the south-eastern state of South Carolina with a missile fired from an F-22 plane, Pentagon officials said, falling into relatively shallow water just 47 feet deep.
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin called the operation a “lawful action” in response to China’s “unacceptable violation of our sovereignty”. But China’s Foreign Ministry on Sunday blasted the downing of the “civilian” aircraft as “clearly overreacting and seriously violating international practice”.
Saturday afternoon was the military’s first chance to take down the balloon “in a way that would not pose a threat to the safety of Americans,” a senior defence official told reporters, while still allowing authorities to collect the fallen debris from US territorial waters.
The balloon looked to collapse in a white puff in a witness video shared on social media before its remains fell vertically into the Atlantic Ocean below. Haley Walsh, a Twitter user, claimed to have “heard and felt the explosion” at the well-known South Carolina vacation destination of Myrtle Beach.
President Joe Biden complimented the jet pilots, who he had earlier on Saturday vowed “to take care” of the balloon. “They were able to take it down. And I want to congratulate the pilots who made it possible, said Biden to reporters in Maryland.
Republicans, on the other hand, attacked Biden for how he handled the Chinese balloon, which had been shot down after circling the nation for days. The US president was criticised by Marco Rubio, vice chair of the Senate intelligence committee, for taking so long to inform the public.
He called the overflight a brazen attempt by Beijing timed to humiliate Biden shortly before his State of the Union address on Tuesday (tomorrow) and to scuttle Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to China, which has subsequently been postponed.
The controversy erupted on Thursday, when American officials said they were tracking a large Chinese “surveillance balloon” in the US skies. After initial hesitation, Beijing admitted ownership of the “airship,” but said it was a civilian weather balloon that had been blown off course.
It was not the first time in recent history such an aircraft had flown over US territory. The balloon first entered US airspace over Alaska on January 28, Pentagon officials told reporters Saturday, before drifting over Canada and then back into the United States days later.
It was not the first time in recent history such an aircraft had flown over US territory, the senior defense official said, though this was the longest time one had spent in the country. Three balloons were spotted during Donald Trump’s presidency and another one earlier in the Biden administration.
The military judged the blimp was not a significant threat to the US during its mission, and “the observation balloon’s overflight of US land was of information value to us,” the senior defence official said, without going into further detail.
A senior military officer revealed on Saturday that teams were already at work retrieving the balloon’s wreckage. The balloon had sailed above key airbases and underground silos housing strategic nuclear missiles in the northwest United States, including the state of Montana.