U.S. military shoots down suspected Chinese spy balloon off Carolina coast
Beijing says vessel was civilian ‘airship,’ Washington decries ‘violation’ of sovereignty
Video filmed from the ground captured the moment a U.S. military fighter aircraft shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon as it floated off the coast of South Carolina.
U.S. military fighter aircraft shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon as it floated off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday, drawing to a close a dramatic saga that shone a spotlight on worsening China-U.S. relations.
“We successfully took it down, and I want to compliment our aviators who did it,” U.S. President Joe Biden said.
Biden said 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 down to Earth from thousands of metres above commercial air traffic.
Multiple fighter and refueling aircraft were involved in the mission, but only one — an F-22 fighter jet — took the shot, using a single AIM-9X missile, a senior U.S. military official said.
The vessel was shot down about six nautical miles off the U.S. coast, over relatively shallow water, potentially aiding efforts to recover key elements of the Chinese surveillance equipment among the debris in the coming days, officials said.
An alleged Chinese spy balloon is seen drifting through the skies above the Kingston, N.C., area. (Brian Branch/The Associated Press)
The shootdown came shortly after the U.S. government ordered a halt to flights in and out of three area airports — Wilmington, N.C., and Myrtle Beach and Charleston in South Carolina — due to what it said at the time was an undisclosed “national security effort.” The flights resumed Saturday afternoon.
The balloon first entered a U.S. identification zone on Jan. 28, entered Canadian airspace three days later and then re-entered U.S. airspace on Jan. 31, a U.S. defence official said.
U.S. officials had publicly disclosed the balloon’s presence over the United States on Thursday.
Washington has called the balloon a “clear violation” of U.S. sovereignty and notified Beijing about the shootdown on Saturday, a U.S. official said.
‘I told them to shoot it down,’ Biden says about suspected Chinese spy balloon
U.S. President Joe Biden on Saturday said he told the Pentagon on Wednesday to shoot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon as soon as possible. On Saturday, the balloon was downed over the Atlantic Ocean.
“Our assessment — and we’re going to learn more as we pick up the debris — was that it was not likely to provide significant additive value over and above other [Chinese] intel capability, such as satellites in low-Earth orbit,” the senior U.S. defence official said.
Defence 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.”
In a statement on Saturday following the downing, Austin thanked Canada “for its contribution to tracking and analysis of the balloon … as it transited North America,” while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Twitter that Canada “strongly supports” the shootdown and pledged to “keep working together” with the U.S., including through the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD).
Today, the United States took definitive action to bring down China’s high-altitude surveillance balloon that violated U.S. and Canadian airspace, and international law.
Canada has been closely engaged with the U.S. on this decision. We unequivocally support this action.
— Anita Anand (@AnitaAnandMP) February 4, 2023
A Reuters photographer said the suspected Chinese spy balloon was shot down over the southeastern U.S. coast. A stream came from a jet and hit the balloon, but there was no explosion, the photographer said. It then began to fall, the photographer said.
The U.S. military did not immediately recover the payload from the Chinese surveillance balloon, U.S. officials said.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a temporary flight restriction to clear airspace around the South Carolina coast. The notice blocked flights to more than 260 square kilometres —mostly over the Atlantic Ocean, according to a document posted by the FAA. The notice warned that the military could use deadly force if airplanes violate the restrictions and do not comply with orders to leave.
China expressed regret that an “airship” used for civilian meteorological and other scientific purposes had strayed into U.S. airspace.
China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said on Saturday that the flight of the “airship” over the U.S. was a force majeure accident, and it accused U.S. politicians and media of taking advantage of the situation to discredit Beijing.
The suspected Chinese spy balloon prompted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a visit to China this week that had been expected to start on Friday.
‘Spy balloon will create new tensions in U.S.-China relations,’ says Canada’s former Ambassador to Beijing
“It’s like someone on the Chinese side almost did this on purpose to make President Xi Jinping lose face,” says Canada’s former Ambassador to China, Guy Saint-Jacques.
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 at what they see as a return of state intervention in the market.
The Pentagon said on Friday that another Chinese balloon was observed over Latin America, without saying where exactly.