The United States Air Force Saturday shot down a spying balloon belonging to China while it was flying over territorial waters in the Atlantic Ocean, Washington confirmed. At the time it was shot down, it was reported to be about 18 km above sea level and 11 km off the coast.
Pentagon experts had advised President Joseph Biden Friday against striking it out of fears that debris might hit populations underneath. But once it was over the ocean that danger disappeared. ”After careful analysis, U.S. military commanders determined that shooting down the balloon while it was above the ground posed an unwarranted risk to people (...) due to the size and altitude of the balloon and its surveillance payload, the Pentagon stated. Biden congratulated the F-22 pilots for their mission. They successfully shot it down. And I want to congratulate our airmen who did it, Biden told reporters. I ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down on Wednesday as soon as possible, he also said.
Today's deliberate and lawful action demonstrates that President Biden and his national security team will always prioritize the safety of the American people and respond effectively to the unacceptable violation of our sovereignty by the People's Republic of China, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in turn. The balloon was used by the People's Republic of China in an attempt to surveil strategic sites” in the United States, he added.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) paused departures and arrivals around noon at airports in Wilmington, N.C., and in Myrtle Beach and Charleston in South Carolina citing national security reasons but traffic was greenlighted to resume as soon as the balloon was confirmed downed.
Beijing admitted on Friday that the artifact was indeed a Chinese device, but that argued it was a civilian aircraft, used for research purposes, mainly meteorological that due to winds, deviated from its trajectory, according to a Foreign Ministry spokesperson.
Canada spoke Friday of a possible second incident after Washington announced the presence of the first balloon. Canada is taking steps to ensure the safety of its airspace, Ottawa said without elaborating. The Pentagon also said Friday that a second Chinese surveillance balloon had been detected over Latin America.
While Chinese authorities expressed regret over an inadvertent intrusion, the Biden administration considered it unacceptable and decided to cancel a visit to Beijing by Secretary of State Antony Blinken scheduled for Sunday and Monday. Blinken told his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi that it was an irresponsible act. He later admitted that his trip was being rescheduled for when conditions permit, insisting on the need to keep channels of communication open with Beijing. His visit to China would have been the first by a U.S. secretary of state since October 2018.
The Chinese Communist Party's top diplomat replied that his country acts responsibly and has always strictly respected international laws, according to the official China News agency China News. China's Foreign Ministry also regretted that ”some politicians and media in the United States used the (balloon) incident as a pretext to attack and slander China.”
According to Washington, the balloon posed neither a military nor a physical threat to people on the ground, but whether the device was moving in a wind-driven or controlled manner remained unexplained.
An operation is now underway to collect the debris, according to reports.
A spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry claimed that Blinken's visit was never actually announced. In fact, neither side has ever announced that there would be a visit, the spokesperson said, adding it is the role of diplomats on both sides to deal with unexpected situations in a cool-headed and prudent manner.