The US military shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the Carolina coast on Saturday. The balloon was said to have flown over sensitive military sites across North America. China claimed it was a civilian aircraft and threatened consequences, but President Biden issued the order for its downing. U.S. officials advised that the best time to take down the balloon would be over water, as bringing it down over land at 60,000 feet altitude posed a risk to people on the ground.
China criticized the US for shooting down a suspected Chinese spy balloon and stated that it reserved the right to take further actions. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that the US’ action was “an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice.” The statement also emphasized China’s commitment to protect the legitimate rights and interests of the relevant company.
The balloon sightings in the US skies this week exacerbated already strained US-China relations, which have been declining for years. This led to Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceling his important trip to Beijing, aimed at reducing tensions.
President Biden praised the aviators who took down the giant white orb after disembarking Air Force One on his way to Camp David. The balloon was observed Saturday morning near the Carolinas and as it neared the Atlantic coast, an F-22 fighter jet shot a missile at it. According to senior defense officials, the balloon was punctured about 6 nautical miles off the coast near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, at approximately 2:39 p.m. EST.
The appearance of the mysterious balloon had Americans gazing at the skies throughout the week, wondering if it had floated above them. On Saturday, 33-year-old Ashlyn Preaux went to retrieve her mail in Forestbrook, South Carolina and noticed her neighbors looking up. There it was, the balloon, floating in the clear blue sky. Soon after, she saw fighter jets flying overhead and the balloon being struck. Ashlyn exclaimed, “I never expected to be in a ‘Top Gun’ movie today.”
The wreckage landed in a shallow 47-foot water depth, which was less than what the officials had anticipated. The debris spread out over about seven miles and the recovery operation involved several ships. The officials estimated that the recovery would be completed shortly, not taking weeks. A salvage vessel was en route. Defense and military officials stated that the balloon entered the US air defense zone north of the Aleutian Islands on January 28th and traveled mainly over land across Alaska and into Canadian airspace in the Northwest Territories on Monday. It re-entered US territory over northern Idaho on Tuesday, the day when the White House informed that President Biden was first briefed on it. The balloon was seen Thursday over Montana, the location of Malmstrom Air Force Base, which has nuclear missile silo fields.
According to two anonymous senior defense officials, the US was able to gather intelligence on the balloon as it flew over the country, allowing them several days to analyze its movements and capabilities for surveillance. The officials stated that the US military continuously evaluated the threat and concluded that the technology on the balloon did not provide the Chinese with substantial intelligence beyond what they could already access via satellites. Nonetheless, the US took measures to minimize the information it could gather as the balloon traveled.
Sen. Roger Wicker, the leading Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, criticized Biden’s reaction and said, “Permitting a spy balloon from the Communist Party of China to fly across the entire US before challenging its presence demonstrates a catastrophic display of weakness by the White House.”
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, tweeted, “Now that this awkward situation is over, we need explanations from the Biden Administration on their choice-making procedure. The Communist China was allowed to infringe American sovereignty uninterrupted for days. We must be better prepared to confront future instigations and inroads by the CCP.” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had a positive outlook, saying, “I thank the US military personnel who successfully shot down the Chinese surveillance balloon. The Biden Administration acted correctly in taking it down.”
China asserts that the balloon was just a weather research airship that had strayed from its intended path. The Pentagon swiftly discredited this claim, as well as China’s assertion that it was not intended for surveillance purposes and had only minimal navigation capabilities. The Chinese government tried to downplay the cancelation of Blinken’s trip by saying, “In reality, no visit between the US and China had been officially announced and it’s up to the US to make such announcements, which we respect.”
The Pentagon has acknowledged the existence of another balloon reportedly flying over Latin America, which they believe to be another Chinese surveillance balloon. Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon Press Secretary, made this known in a statement. According to officials, these balloons are part of China’s fleet used for surveillance and can be controlled remotely using small motors and propellers. It was revealed that the balloons carry equipment in their pods, which is not commonly used for standard meteorological activities or civilian research.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to inquiries about the second balloon sighting. This is not the first instance of Chinese spy balloons crossing into U.S. airspace, as it has happened multiple times in recent years, including under the previous administration and during Biden’s presidency, but never for such a prolonged period, according to an official. Blinken, who was supposed to travel to Beijing on Friday, informed the senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in a phone call that the launch of the balloon was “an irresponsible act” and that it impacted the substantive discussions he had planned to have during his visit.
The official Chinese government stance was mirrored by uncensored reactions on the country’s internet, with some people claiming that the situation was being overblown by the US. Nationalist influencers took advantage of the news to mock the US, while some joked that the country’s defenses couldn’t even handle a simple balloon. The Chinese government has denied any spying allegations and maintained that the balloon was meant for meteorological research and its journey was out of their control. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that they hoped the US would not “smear” China based on the balloon.
The FAA closed the airspace along the Carolina coast, including three airports, ahead of the operation to bring down the balloon. This resulted in rerouted air traffic and potential delays. The FAA and Coast Guard coordinated to ensure the area below the balloon was clear as it reached the ocean.
Footage from TV stations depicted a minor explosion, which caused the giant balloon to swiftly fall towards the water, resembling a ribbon. Bill Swanson, who observed the balloon’s deflation from his home in Myrtle Beach while fighter jets flew overhead, stated that the balloon vanished in an instant. “One moment it was there like a small moon and the next it was gone,” he said. Swanson also mentioned that the balloon left behind a trail of smoke as it descended.
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