China threatens retaliation after US shot down spy balloon
Feb. 5 2022
The balloon drifts above the Kingstown, NC area, with an airplane seen below it. (Source: Associated Press)
The US military on Saturday (local time) shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the Carolina coast after it traversed sensitive military sites across North America, drawing a threat of repercussions from China.
President Joe Biden issued the order but had wanted the balloon downed even earlier, on Wednesday. He was advised that the best time for the operation would be when it was over water, US officials said.
Military officials determined that bringing it down over land from an altitude of 18,288 metres would pose an undue risk to people on the ground.
China responded that it reserved the right to "take further actions" and "an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice."
In its statement Sunday, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that "China will resolutely uphold the relevant company's legitimate rights and interests, and at the same time reserving the right to take further actions in response."
The presence of the balloon in the skies above the US this week dealt a severe blow to already strained US-Chinese relations that have been in a downward spiral for years. It prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to abruptly cancel a high-stakes Beijing trip aimed at easing tensions.
"They successfully took it down and I want to compliment our aviators who did it," Biden said after getting off Air Force One en route to Camp David.
The giant white orb was spotted Saturday morning over the Carolinas as it approached the Atlantic coast. About 2.39pm EST, an F-22 fighter jet fired a missile at the balloon, puncturing it while it was about 11 kilometres off the coast near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, senior defence officials said.
The spectacle had Americans looking to the skies all week, wondering whether the mysterious balloon had floated over them.
On Saturday, Ashlyn Preaux, 33, went out to get her mail in Forestbrook, South Carolina, and noticed her neighbours looking up — and there it was, the balloon in the cloudless blue sky. Then she saw fighter jets circling and the balloon get hit.
"I did not anticipate waking up to be in a 'Top Gun' movie today," she said.
The debris landed in 14 metres of water, shallower than officials had expected, and it spread out over roughly 11 kilometres and the recovery operation included several ships.
The officials estimated the recovery efforts would be completed in a short time, not weeks. A salvage vessel was en route.
China has claimed 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.
The Chinese government on Saturday sought to play down the cancellation of Blinken's trip. "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," China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
The Pentagon also acknowledged reports of a second balloon flying over Latin America. "We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon," Brigadier General Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement.
Officials said the balloons are part of a fleet that China uses for surveillance, and they can be maneuvered remotely through small motors and propellers. One official said they carry equipment in the pod under the balloon that is not usually associated with standard meteorological activities or civilian research.
China criticised the US for "an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice."