US shot down China surveillance balloon over Atlantic Ocean

WASHINGTON, 5 Feb 2023:

The Chinese surveillance balloon detected earlier this week over the US was shot down yesterday over the Atlantic, secretary of defence Lloyd Austin said.

“This afternoon, at the direction of President Biden, US fighter aircraft … successfully brought down the high altitude surveillance balloon launched by and belonging to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over the water off the coast of South Carolina in US airspace,” he said in a statement.

The secretary repeated the accusation that the balloon – which China described as a civilian airship conducting meteorological research – “was being used by the PRC in an attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States.”

In a brief exchange with reporters following the shoot-down, president Joe Biden said that when he learned of the balloon Wednesday, he gave the instruction to bring it down when conditions allowed.

“I ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down on Wednesday as soon as possible. They decided – without doing damage to anyone on the ground – they decided that the best time to do that was when it got over water outside within a 12 mile limit,” the president said.

After a “careful analysis,” according to Austin’s statement, military commanders concluding shooting down the balloon over land “posed an undue risk to people across a wide area due to the size and altitude of the balloon and its surveillance payload.”

Pentagon officials said US Navy and Coast Guard vessels were already at work securing the site of the shoot-down and searching for debris ahead of an effort to salvage what is left of the airship for study.

China’s Embassy in Washington said in a statement that country “reserves the right to respond further” and “China expresses its strong dissatisfaction and protest against the US use of force to attack civilian unmanned airships”.

On Friday, secretary of state Antony Blinken postponed a planned visit to China.

“After consultations with our interagency partners, as well as with Congress, we have concluded that the conditions are not right at this moment for Secretary Blinken to travel to China,” a senior official told reporters on background.

While acknowledging the Chinese explanation the airship had blown off course, the State Department official emphasised the gravity of the violation of US airspace.

“We have noted the PRC statement of regret, but the presence of this balloon in our airspace is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law and is unacceptable that this has occurred.”

Blinken’s visit – the first by a US secretary of state to China since 2018 – was to include talks with counterpart Wang Yi and a possible meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping.

The State Department official said communication channels between the US and China remained open.

“From the moment this incident occurred, we have been in regular and frequent contact with our Chinese counterparts and I do anticipate that will continue,” the official said.

Early yesterday, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry also emphasised the importance of communication and reaffirmed the claim that airship was a civilian craft – denouncing US politicians and media outlets for having “hyped it up to attack and smear China”.

“One of the tasks of the diplomatic teams on both sides is to properly manage bilateral relations, particularly to manage some unexpected situations in a cool-headed and prudent manner,” the Chinese official said.

In another press statement on Friday, the Pentagon said it had detected a second Chinese balloon flying over Latin America.

“We are seeing reports of a balloon transiting Latin America. We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Pentagon spokesperson Patrick Ryder said.

As for that sighted in US airspace, the balloon was flying at an altitude well above commercial air traffic, Ryder said, and did not pose a threat to civil aviation.

– EFE (NASA weather balloon stock image as illustration)