Beijing has lashed out at the US decision to shoot down a Chinese balloon that flew across North America this week, accusing the Biden administration of “seriously violating international conventions”.
The Chinese foreign ministry said it “repeatedly” told the US the balloon was for “civilian use” and had entered American airspace by accident due to bad weather — a claim the US has dismissed. The ministry said China would take necessary action to safeguard its “legitimate rights and interests”.
The salvo came hours after an American F-22 fighter jet shot down what the US insists was a spy balloon, and moved to recover the debris to glean more information about the surveillance equipment carried on the craft.
The fighter fired an air-to-air missile at the balloon at 2.39pm local time on Saturday when it was six nautical miles off the coast in US airspace and over its territorial waters.
US defence secretary Lloyd Austin said President Joe Biden had on Wednesday authorised that the balloon be shot down “as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives”.
The Pentagon said the US military had started trying to recover the debris, which is spread across seven miles of sea. A senior defence official said the US had determined that the balloon had a “broad array” of intelligence capabilities but would learn more after analysing the debris.
The Pentagon on Wednesday revealed the presence of the balloon as it was flying over a sensitive military installation in Montana where the US bases some of its nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles.
A senior defence official said the craft entered US airspace on January 28 near the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. It flew into Canadian airspace two days later and re-entered US airspace over Idaho on January 31.
The debris from the destroyed balloon fell into sea 47 feet deep, which one official said would make it easier to recover the debris than expected.
One person familiar with the thinking inside the administration said China had so far not demanded that the US return the debris from the balloon.
In 2001, US-China relations descended into a crisis after a US spy plane was forced to land at a Chinese military base after it was struck by a Chinese fighter jet. China took months to return the damaged aircraft.
The person added that when the Biden administration summoned Chinese officials to the state department on Wednesday to protest about the balloon, the diplomats were unable to provide an explanation.
“They were caught off guard and didn’t have a story yet,” the person said. “We made clear that we knew exactly what was going on and needed rapid actions . . . It took them much longer than necessary to get back to us.”
The person said the administration had been in contact with Beijing multiple times on Saturday and had requested further conversations.
Austin said the “lawful action” had shown that Biden would “always put the safety and security of the American people first while responding effectively to the PRC’s unacceptable violation of our sovereignty”.
Biden had come under pressure from Republicans to down the craft, which was estimated to be the size of several buses.
Some lawmakers questioned why the president had allowed the balloon to continue to fly across the US. Michael McCaul, the Republican head of the House foreign affairs committee, said the administration “should have taken care of this before it became a national security threat”.
The Pentagon defended the decision to allow the balloon to cross the US. The defence official said the main reason was to avoid civilian casualties, but he added that the Pentagon had been able to gather intelligence about the balloon’s capabilities during its flight.
“What has not been understood . . . is that this actually provided us a number of days to analyse this balloon and . . . learn a lot about what this balloon was doing, how it was doing it,” said the defence official.
The defence official said the craft shot down was part of a fleet of Chinese spy balloons operating over five continents. the Pentagon earlier said a second Chinese spy balloon had been detected over Latin America but did not elaborate.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken on Friday cancelled a visit to China because of the discovery of the balloon. He had been expected to meet President Xi Jinping. He would have been the first Biden administration cabinet secretary to visit China.
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