Beijing has slammed the US decision to shoot down a Chinese balloon that flew across North America this week, underscoring how the episode has undermined efforts to stabilise relations between the military powers.
China accused the US of “seriously violating international conventions” and repeated its claim that it was a balloon for “civilian use” that had veered off course due to bad weather. The defence ministry said it would reserve “the right to use the necessary means to deal with similar situations”.
The salvo came hours after an American F-22 fighter jet shot down what the US insists was a spy balloon. The US is now recovering the debris to glean more information about the surveillance gear carried on the craft.
The F-22 Raptor fired an air-to-air missile at the balloon at 2.39pm on Saturday when it was six nautical miles off the coast, in US airspace, causing the balloon to crash into American territorial waters.
US defence secretary Lloyd Austin said 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”.
Democrats on Sunday praised the president, who told reporters that he had ordered the military to shoot down the balloon.
“President Biden made the right decision to shoot down this alleged Chinese spy balloon out of range of American civilians and infrastructure,” said Jack Reed, the Democratic Senate armed services committee chair.
But some Republicans asked why Biden had not ordered the military to take action before the balloon — which entered US airspace over Alaska on January 28 — had flown across sensitive military sites.
“Taking it down over the Atlantic is sort of like tackling the quarterback after the game is over,” Mike Turner, head of the House intelligence committee told NBC television. “The satellite had completed its mission. It should never have been allowed to enter the US.”
Defence officials said they did not down the balloon over land because of the risk to civilians. But they added that the US had monitored its course and gathered intelligence on it as it crossed North America.
“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 one senior defence official.
Marco Rubio, Republican vice-chair of the Senate intelligence committee, said Biden should have spoken to the US public during the week, but that the administration was focused on trying to salvage the trip that secretary of state Antony Blinken was supposed to make to China this weekend.
Blinken cancelled his trip on Friday, saying China had violated US sovereign airspace. He had planned to meet President Xi Jinping on what would have been the first trip to China by a Biden administration cabinet secretary.
Mike Mullen, a retired admiral and former chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, said one unanswered “big question” was whether the leadership in China knew about the Chinese military operation — “whether the right hand knew what the left hand was doing”.
Mullen told ABC television that the episode had “put a big dent” in efforts to attempt to stabilise relations between Beijing and Washington.
One person familiar with the thinking inside the US administration said the US did not yet know if Xi was aware about the balloon operation this week.
The US military on Saturday started the process of recovering the debris, which was spread across seven miles of sea. A senior defence official said the Pentagon had determined that the balloon had a “broad array” of intelligence capabilities but would learn more after analysing the debris.
The debris from the destroyed balloon fell into relatively shallow sea, 47 feet deep, which one official said would make it easier to recover the debris.
The person familiar with the administration’s thinking said China had not demanded that the US return the debris from the balloon.
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.
The defence official said the it was part of a fleet of Chinese spy balloons operating over five continents. It 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 Pentagon said a second Chinese balloon had been detected over Latin America.
In 2001, US-China relations descended into a crisis after an American EP-3 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.
Additional reporting by Eleanor Olcott in Hong Kong
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