The Pentagon has said that a United States fighter aircraft downed a Chinese “spy” balloon off the coast of South Carolina, amid worsening Sino-US relations. China has rejected US accusations that the flying object was a surveillance balloon.
President Joe Biden congratulated US fighter pilots for taking down the balloon in the country’s airspace and above its territorial waters.
“They successfully took it down. And I want to compliment our aviators who did it,” Biden told reporters in Maryland.
“Today’s deliberate and lawful action demonstrates that President (Joe) Biden and his national security team will always put the safety and security of the American people first while responding effectively to the PRC’s unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in a statement on Saturday, referring to China’s official name, the People’s Republic of China.
The strike took place on Saturday afternoon after three southeastern airports in the US were temporarily shut down over what the Federal Aviation Administration called a “national security effort.”
New York-based journalist Don DeBar pointed out the irony in Biden’s bluster.
“The US military, with a trillion dollar budget, is elated over taking out an innocuous unmanned and unarmed balloon when the last time it was confronted with an actual danger, on September 11th, 2001, there was no protection at all,” DeBar said.
China on Friday rejected US accusations over the surveillance balloon sighted flying over the United States, saying that the balloon is a civilian meteorological “airship” used for scientific research purposes. Beijing expressed regret that the “airship” had strayed into US airspace.
“The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes,” China’s foreign ministry said in a statement Friday.
“The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure,” it said, using the legal term for an act outside of human control.
The Pentagon said on Thursday it was tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon over the United States. Officials said the US military considered shooting it down over Montana on Wednesday but eventually decided against this because of the safety risk from debris, according to Reuters.
The Pentagon said Friday night, another Chinese surveillance balloon was flying over Latin America.
“We are seeing reports of a balloon transiting Latin America. We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder said in a statement, without specifying the balloon’s exact location.
On Friday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a visit to China after Washington accused Beijing of violating the country’s sovereignty by flying the balloon over the United States.
White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said President Joe Biden was briefed on the balloon flight and there was an administration “consensus that it was not appropriate to travel to the People’s Republic of China at this time.”
Jean-Pierre said “the presence of this balloon in our airspace, it is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law. It is unacceptable this occurred.”
A senior US military official said on Thursday that the Pentagon spotted the balloon several days ago as it made its way over the northern United States.
“We are confident that this high-altitude surveillance balloon belongs to the [People’s Republic of China],” the Pentagon spokesman said.