US President Joe Biden’s 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 might make “necessary responses.”
The craft spent several days flying over North America before it was targeted off the coast of the southeastern state of South Carolina with a missile fired from an F-22 plane, Pentagon officials said.
It fell into relatively shallow water just 14m deep.
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.”
However, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs blasted the US action in a statement yesterday morning, saying the downing of the “civilian” craft was “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,” while still allowing authorities to collect the fallen debris from US territorial waters, a senior defense official told reporters.
Video footage posted on social media showed the balloon appearing to disintegrate in a white puff before its remnants dropped vertically into the Atlantic Ocean.
Biden, who earlier on Saturday had promised “to take care” of the balloon, congratulated the fighter pilots involved.
“They successfully took it down, and I want to compliment our aviators who did it,” Biden told reporters in Maryland.
The controversy erupted on Thursday, when US officials said they were tracking a large Chinese “surveillance balloon” in US skies.
That led US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday to scrap a rare trip to Beijing designed to contain rising US-China tensions.
After initial hesitation, Beijing admitted ownership of the “airship,” but said it was a civilian weather balloon that had been blown off course and that it “regrets” the episode.
However after Saturday’s operation, the foreign ministry expressed China’s “strong dissatisfaction and protests against the use of force by the United States to attack the unmanned civilian airship.”
Instead of responding in a “restrained manner ... the United States insisted on using force, clearly overreacting,” the ministry said.
“China will resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of relevant enterprises and reserve the right to make further necessary responses,” it said.
Biden told reporters he had on Wednesday ordered the craft shot down “as soon as possible.”
“They decided — without doing damage to anyone on the ground ... that the best time to do that was as it got over water,” Biden said.
“The surveillance balloon’s overflight of US territory was of intelligence value to us,” the senior defense official said, without providing details.
Teams were already working on recovering the balloon’s remains, a senior military official said.
The balloon had flown over parts of the northwestern US — including the state of Montana — that are home to sensitive airbases and strategic nuclear missiles in underground silos.
“We are confident it was seeking to monitor sensitive military sites,” the senior defense official said.
Central Weather Bureau Director-General Cheng Ming-dean (鄭明典) on Saturday said that an object similar to the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon appeared over Taipei twice in the past 18 months — in September 2021 and March last year — hovering in the sky for two to three hours each time.
The government at the time did not comment on the sightings.
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