The United States on Saturday downed a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the Carolina coast after President Joe Biden vowed to “take care” of the suspected spy device.
The balloon was shot down after it traversed sensitive military sites across North America and became the latest flashpoint in tensions between Washington and Beijing.
.@SecDef: This afternoon, at the direction of President Biden, U.S. fighter aircraft assigned to USNORTHCOM successfully brought down the high-altitude surveillance balloon launched by and belonging to the PRC over the water off the South Carolina coast. https://t.co/2Gk3fi2aLg— Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder (@PentagonPresSec) February 4, 2023
An operation was underway in US territorial waters in the Atlantic Ocean to recover debris from the balloon, which had been flying at about 60,000 feet and was estimated to be about the size of three school buses.
“We successfully took it down, and I want to compliment our aviators who did it,” President Joe Biden was quoted by Reuters as saying.
Chinese spy balloon shot down. #ChineseSpyBalloon pic.twitter.com/2LNUUf0Qpr— Devon Pace (@elitedevon) February 4, 2023
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin first announced the shootdown, saying the balloon was being used by China “in an attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States.”
“This afternoon, at the direction of President Biden, U.S. fighter aircraft assigned to USNORTHCOM successfully brought down the high-altitude surveillance balloon launched by and belonging to the PRC over the water off the South Carolina coast,” Austin said.
Travis Huffstetler, a local photographer in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, told CNN he witnessed the US military shoot down the suspected Chinese spy balloon on Saturday afternoon. Twitter user Devon Pace captured video of the takedown of a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon off the coast of the Carolinas.
Navy assets and Coast Guard assets are on standby if required for any possible recovery efforts, CNN reported. The balloon was first spotted in the sky over Montana earlier this week and traveled across the middle of the country.
Recovery efforts are underway off the coast of the Carolinas where the suspected Chinese spy balloon was shot down by the US military. The specific method of taking down the balloon is still unclear, an official told CNN.
The agency has also closed airspace.— The FAA ✈️ (@FAANews) February 4, 2023
According to US local media reports, three US airports were shut down and the suspected spy balloon was shot down off the country’s east coast. After extending a ground stop at three airports in North and South Carolina, the Federal Aviation Administration said it has reopened airspace in the area.
President Joe Biden had told reporters earlier Saturday that “we’re going to take care of it,” when asked about the balloon. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Coast Guard worked to clear the airspace and water below the balloon as it reached the ocean. Both the White House and the Pentagon said that the Chinese balloon does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.
Prior to the balloon being shot down, the FAA temporarily closed airspace over the Carolina coastline, including the airports in Charleston and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina. The FAA rerouted air traffic from the area and warned of delays as a result of the flight restrictions.
Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the balloon descending toward the water. US military jets were seen flying in the vicinity and ships were deployed in the water to mount the recovery operation.
Officials were aiming to time the operation so they could recover as much of the debris as possible before it sinks into the ocean. The Pentagon had previously estimated that any debris field would be substantial.
Top military officials had advised against shooting down the balloon while over the continental US because of the risk the debris could pose to civilians and property on the ground, but officials had maintained that all options remained on the table.
The Coast Guard advised mariners to immediately leave the area because of U.S. military operations “that present a significant hazard.
The public disclosure of the balloon this week prompted the cancellation of a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing scheduled for Sunday for talks aimed at reducing U.S.-China tensions. The Chinese government on Saturday sought to play down the cancellation.
“In actuality, the US and China have never announced any visit, the US making any such announcement is their own business, and we respect that,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement Saturday morning.
China has continued to claim that the balloon was merely a weather research “airship” that had been blown off course. The Pentagon rejected that out of hand – as well as China’s contention that it was not being used for surveillance and had only limited navigational ability.
The balloon was spotted over Montana, which is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
The Pentagon also acknowledged reports of a second balloon flying over Latin America. “We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement.
While China claimed the balloon had entered US airspace by accident, the state department said the presence of the balloon over US territory was “a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law, and it is unacceptable that this has occurred.”
China has denied any claims of spying and said it is a civilian-use balloon intended for meteorology research. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasized that the balloon’s journey was out of its control and urged the U.S. not to “smear” it based on the balloon.
The postponement of Blinken’s trip, which had been agreed to in November by Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, is a blow to those who saw it as an overdue opportunity to stabilize an increasingly fractious relationship between the two countries.
China is keen for a stable U.S. relationship so it can focus on its economy, battered by the now- abandoned zero-Covid policy and neglected by foreign investors alarmed by what they see as a return of state intervention in the market.