Air Force Downs Spy Balloon as China Downplays Blinken Visit Cancellation
Air Force fighters downed the spy balloon, and a recovery operation was under way Saturday to recover debris. The State secretary had been due to visit Beijing on Sunday.
Updated at 3:20 P.M. E.S.T.
WASHINGTON — America on Saturday downed a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the Carolina coast after it traversed sensitive military sites across North America and became the latest flashpoint in tensions between Washington and Beijing.
An operation was underway in American 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.
The balloon was downed by Air Force fighter aircraft, according to two officials who were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.
President Biden had told reporters earlier Saturday that “we’re going to take care of it,” when asked about the balloon. The Federal Aviation Administration and Coast Guard worked to clear the airspace and water below the balloon as it reached the ocean.
Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the balloon descending toward the water. American 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.
The balloon was spotted Saturday morning over the Carolinas as it approached the coast. In preparation for the operation, the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily closed airspace over the Carolina coastline, including the airports at 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.
The Coast Guard advised mariners to immediately leave the area because of U.S military operations “that present a significant hazard.”
Mr. Biden had been inclined to down the balloon over land when he was first briefed on it on Tuesday, but Pentagon officials advised against it, warning that the potential risk to people on the ground outweighed the assessment of potential Chinese intelligence gains.
The public disclosure of the balloon this week prompted the cancellation of a visit by Secretary of State Blinken to Beijing scheduled for Sunday for talks aimed at reducing tensions between the two nations. The Chinese government on Saturday sought to play down the cancellation, saying that neither side had formally announced any such plan.
“In actuality, the U.S. and China have never announced any visit, the U.S. making any such announcement is their own business, and we respect that,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement Saturday morning.
America had abruptly canceled the trip after the discovery of the huge balloon despite China’s claim that it was merely a weather research “airship” that had blown off course.
The Pentagon rejected that out of hand — as well as China’s contention that the balloon was not being used for surveillance and had only limited navigational ability.
Uncensored reactions on the Chinese internet mirrored the official government stance that America was hyping up the situation.
Many users made jokes about the balloon. Some said that since America had put restrictions on the technology that China is able to buy to weaken the Chinese tech industry, they couldn’t control the balloon.
Others called it the “wandering balloon” in a pun that refers to the newly released Chinese sci-fi film called “The Wandering Earth 2.”
Still others used it as a chance to poke fun at American defenses, saying it couldn’t even defend against a balloon, and nationalist influencers leapt to use the news to mock America. One wrote wryly: “The U.S., because of the balloon incident, delays Blinken’s visit to China.”
Censorship was visible on the topic — the “wandering balloon” hashtag on Weibo was no longer searchable by Saturday evening.
“The U.S. is hyping this as a national security threat posed by China to the U.S. This type of military threat, in actuality, we haven’t done this. And compared with the U.S. military threat normally aimed at us, can you say it’s just little? Their surveillance planes, their submarines, their naval ships are all coming near our borders,” a Chinese military expert, Chen Haoyang of the Taihe Institute, said on Phoenix TV, one of the major national TV outlets.
The balloon was spotted earlier over Montana, which is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, defense officials said.
Meanwhile, people with binoculars and telephoto lenses tried to find the “spy balloon” in the sky as it headed southeastward over Kansas and Missouri at 60,000 feet.
The Pentagon also acknowledged reports of a second balloon flying over Latin America. “We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” a Pentagon press secretary, Brigadier General Pat Ryder, said in a statement.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a question about the second balloon.
Mr. Blinken, who had been due to depart Washington for Beijing late Friday, said he had told senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in a phone call that sending the balloon over America was “an irresponsible act and that (China’s) decision to take this action on the eve of my visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have.”
China has denied any claims of spying, and said it is a civilian-use balloon intended for meteorology research. Experts have said that their response was feasible.
Yet analysts said the unexpected incident will not help the strained ties between the two countries, and particularly China’s initial response where it said they could not control the balloon and “regretted” that it unintentionally entered America.
On Saturday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs again emphasized that the balloon’s journey was out of its control and urged the U.S. to not “smear” it based on the balloon.
Mr. Wang said China “has always strictly followed international law, we do not accept any groundless speculation and hype. Faced with unexpected situations, both parties need to keep calm, communicate in a timely manner, avoid misjudgments and manage differences.”
An associate professor at the National University of Singapore, Alfred Wu, said China’s apology did not appear sincere.
“In the meantime, the relationship will not improve in the near future … the gap is huge.”
Associated Press writer Huizhong Wu contributed to this report from Taipei.