After crossing sensitive military sites across North America, a suspected Chinese spy balloon was shot down off the Carolina coast on Saturday by the U.S. military. According to China, the flyover was an accident involving a civilian aircraft, and repercussions were threatened.
The balloon should have been downed earlier, when it was over water, U.S. officials said. President Joe Biden issued the order, but he wanted it downed even earlier. In the end, military officials determined that it would pose an undue risk to people on the ground to bring it down from a height of 60,000 feet over land.
A Chinese official responded that it reserved the right to “take further actions” and criticized the U.S. for “an obvious overreaction.”
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 reserves the right to take further actions in response.” Later in the day, the Chinese Ministry of Defense echoed the statement, stating that it would take the necessary measures in similar circumstances.
The presence of the balloon in the skies above the U.S. this week dealt a severe blow to already strained U.S.-Chinese relations that have been in a downward spiral for years. Blinken abruptly canceled a trip to Beijing aimed at easing tensions as a result.
Biden said after getting off Air Force One en route to Camp David, “I want to congratulate our aviators who did it.”
As the giant white orb approached the Atlantic coast, it was spotted over the Carolinas Saturday morning. According to senior defense officials, an F-22 fighter jet punctured the balloon about 6 nautical miles off the coast near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, about 2:39 p.m. EST.
Throughout the week, Americans looked to the skies, wondering whether the mysterious balloon had passed above them.
In Forestbrook, South Carolina, on Saturday, Ashlyn Preaux noticed her neighbors looking up – and there it was, the balloon in the cloudless blue sky. She then saw fighter jets circle and the balloon was destroyed.
“I didn’t expect to wake up today in a ‘Top Gun’ movie,” she said.
Several ships participated in the recovery operation after the debris landed in 47 feet of water, shallower than officials had expected, and spread over roughly seven miles. Recovery efforts were estimated to be completed in a matter of weeks. A salvage vessel was en route.
A U.S. military official said Saturday that the balloon entered a U.S. air defense zone north of the Aleutian Islands on Jan. 28 and traveled mostly across Alaska before crossing into Canadian airspace in the Northwest Territories on Monday. The White House said Biden was first briefed on the plane on Tuesday, the day it crossed back into U.S. territory over northern Idaho.
There are nuclear missile silos at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, where the balloon was spotted Wednesday.
According to two senior defense officials, the Americans collected intelligence about the balloon as it flew over the United States, which allowed them to analyze it and learn how it moved and what it was capable of spying on. Reporters were briefed on an anonymous basis by the officials.
The U.S. military was constantly assessing the threat, and officials concluded that the technology on the balloon did not give the Chinese significant insight beyond what it could already obtain from satellites, even though the U.S. took steps to mitigate what information it could gather as it went along.
Biden’s response was criticized by Republicans.
Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that allowing a spy balloon from the Communist Party of China to travel across the continental United States without contesting its presence was a disastrous projection of weakness by the White House.
As Senator Tillis, R-N.C., tweeted: “Now that this embarrassing episode is over, we need answers from the Biden Administration on how decisions are made. Communist China violated American sovereignty unhindered for days. We must be better prepared for future provocations and incursions by the CCP.”
Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was kinder: “Thank you to the men and women of the United States military who completed the mission to shoot down the Chinese surveillance balloon. The Biden Administration did the right thing.”
The Pentagon rejected China’s claim that the balloon was merely a weather research “airship” that had been blown off course – as well as China’s claims that it was not being used for surveillance.
According to the Chinese government, Blinken’s trip was canceled on Saturday. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China said in a statement that the U.S. has never announced a visit and that making such an announcement is their own business.
The Pentagon has acknowledged reports of a Chinese surveillance balloon operating in Latin America. Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, stated that the balloon is part of a fleet used by China for surveillance purposes, that can be remotely maneuvered with motors and propellers. According to one official, they carry equipment which is not usually associated with typical meteorological activities or any civilian research.
In response to a question about the second balloon, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond.
Several Chinese spy balloons have crossed into U.S. airspace in recent years, one of the officials said. They have seen balloons cross at least three times during the Trump administration and at least one other time during Biden’s time as president, but not for this long, the official said.
Blinken, who had been due to depart Washington for Beijing late Friday, told Wang Yi via phone that sending the balloon over the U.S. It was “an irresponsible act and (China’s) decision to take this action on the eve of my visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have.”
China’s internet users echoed the official government’s claim that the U.S. was exaggerating the situation. A number of people mocked U.S. defenses, saying it could not even defend against a balloon. Nationalist influencers also used the news to mock the U.S.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs insisted that the balloon’s journey was out of its control and urged the U.S. not to “smear” the country because of it.
In preparation for the operation Saturday, the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily closed airspace over the Carolina coast, including the airports in Myrtle Beach and Charleston, South Carolina, as well as Wilmington, North Carolina. Because of flight restrictions, the FAA rerouted air traffic from the area and warned of delays. The Coast Guard cleared the airspace and water below the balloon as it reached the ocean.
The giant deflated balloon was shown descending like a ribbon toward the water after a small explosion.
In Myrtle Beach, Bill Swanson watched as fighter jets circled around the balloon as it deflated instantly.
“It deflated almost instantly,” Swanson said. “One second it was there, and the next second, it was gone.” A trail of smoke followed the balloon as it deflated.