West News Wire: A week after it violated US airspace and set off a spying incident that deteriorated relations between Beijing and Washington, the United States shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the coast of the US state of South Carolina.
China immediately condemned the military action on Saturday, warning of “necessary” retaliation and insisting the “unmanned civilian airship” was actually a meteorological research balloon that had “totally inadvertently” flown into US territory.
Several fighter and refueling aircraft, according to US defense officials, were involved in the mission on Saturday, but only one shot was fired at 2:39 p.m. (19:39 GMT) by an F-22 fighter jet from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia with a single AIM-9X supersonic, heat-seeking air-to-air missile.
The balloon, which had been flying at about 18,300 metres (60,000 ft), was shot down about six nautical miles off the coast of South Carolina.
President Joe Biden told reporters that he had issued an order on Wednesday to take down the balloon, but the Pentagon had recommended waiting until it could be done over open water to safeguard civilians from debris crashing to Earth.
“We successfully took it down, and I want to compliment our aviators who did it,” Biden said in Maryland.
The shootdown came shortly after the US government ordered a halt to flights around the South Carolina coast due to what it said at the time was an undisclosed “national security effort”. Flights resumed on Saturday afternoon.
Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the balloon falling towards the water. The Associated Press news agency said an operation was under way in US territorial waters in the Atlantic Ocean to recover debris from the balloon.
Reuters quoted a US military official as saying that the debris field was spread out over 11km (seven miles) of ocean and that multiple military vessels were on site.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called the operation a “deliberate and lawful action” that came in response to China’s “unacceptable violation of our sovereignty”.
He said the balloon was being used by China “in an attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States”.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praised the operation, tweeting, “Canada strongly supports this action we’ll keep working together on our security and defence.”
China’s foreign ministry condemned Saturday’s hit on the balloon, expressing Beijing’s “strong dissatisfaction and protests against the use of force by the United States to attack the unmanned civilian airship”.
The balloon’s presence in the skies above North America has dealt a severe blow to already strained US-Chinese relations, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken abruptly cancelling on Friday a high-stakes Beijing trip aimed at easing tensions.
China has been eager for a stable relationship with Washington so it could focus on its economy, battered by its now-abandoned zero-COVID policy.
Earlier on Saturday, the Chinese foreign ministry played down the cancellation of the Blinken visit, which had been agreed in November by Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, saying neither side had formally announced any such plan.