A US military fighter jet shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina, a week after it first entered US airspace and sparked a dramatic and public saga that has soured Sino-US relations.
US President Joe Biden said he had ordered the balloon down on Wednesday, but the Pentagon had recommended waiting over open water to protect civilians from debris falling to the ground from thousands of meters above passenger jet routes. .
“They successfully brought it down, and I want to thank our Airmen who did it,” Biden said.
A number of fighters and refueling aircraft participated in the mission, but only one, an F-22 from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, launched at 2:39 p.m. using a single AIM-9X supersonic air-to-air missile. a senior US military official said.
China strongly condemned the military’s downing of the aircraft, which it said was being used for meteorological and other scientific purposes and had strayed into US airspace “completely by accident”. The claim was categorically denied by American representatives.
“China has clearly asked the US to resolve the case calmly, professionally and with restraint. The US insisted on using force, it is clear that they overdid it,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The balloon was brought down about six nautical miles off the US Atlantic coast, over relatively shallow waters, which is likely to aid efforts to recover items of Chinese surveillance equipment in the coming days, US officials said.
A U.S. official said debris was scattered in an 7-mile radius of the ocean and that a number of U.S. warships were on the scene.
The balloon was brought down shortly after the US government ordered the suspension of flights to and from three US airports in South Carolina – Wilmington, Myrtle Beach and Charleston – due to an undisclosed “national security activity” at the time. Flights were restored on Saturday afternoon.
While Saturday’s balloon drop ends the military dimension of the spy saga, Biden is likely to remain under intense political pressure from his Republican opponents in Congress, who say he has not acted quickly enough.
A senior administration official said that after the balloon was brought down, American leaders spoke directly with Chinese officials about the operation. The State Department has also notified allies and partners around the world, he added.
Questions remain about how much information China may have gathered while the balloon was hovering over American territory.
The balloon entered US airspace over Alaska on January 28 before crossing into Canadian airspace on January 30. It then re-entered US airspace over Idaho on January 31, a US Defense Department official said. After it began floating over land in the US, it did not return to open water, making it difficult to shoot down.
US officials only revealed the balloon’s presence over the US on Thursday.
“It’s clear that the Biden administration hoped to hide this national security failure from Congress and the American people,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, a Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee.
Biden’s insistence on Saturday that he days ago ordered the balloon to be deflated as soon as possible may be an attempt to address those criticisms.
Former President Donald Trump, who is a potential challenger to Biden in the 2024 election, called earlier this week for deflating the bubble and tried to take a stronger stance than Biden on China. US relations with China are likely to be one of the big issues in the 2024 presidential election.
Washington described the balloon’s appearance as a “clear violation” of US sovereignty and notified Beijing of its takedown on Saturday, a US official said.
But on Saturday, US leaders played down the impact of the bubble on US national security.
“Our assessment, and we’ll learn more when we get hold of the debris, is that it probably doesn’t add significant value to China’s intelligence capabilities like low-Earth orbit satellites,” a US Defense Department official said.
The Pentagon believes the balloon is part of a fleet of Chinese reconnaissance balloons. On Friday, he reported that another Chinese balloon was flying over Latin America.
The suspicious Chinese bubble forced US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to postpone a visit to China this week that was due to start on Friday.
The postponement of the visit, which was agreed in November by Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, was a blow to those who saw it as a belated opportunity to stabilize increasingly strained relations between the two countries.
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