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U.S. downs alleged Chinese spy balloon that lingered for days

President Joe Biden speaks during a visit to the Belmont Water Treatment Plant on Friday in Philadelphia.  (Jose F. Moreno/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)
By Christian Hall, Jenny Leonard and Riley Griffin Bloomberg News

The U.S. shot down an alleged Chinese surveillance balloon off the South Carolina coast on Saturday, capping days of waiting as it traversed the country and injected new tension into relations with China.

President Joe Biden said he ordered the Pentagon on Wednesday to down the balloon as soon as possible “without doing damage to anyone on the ground.” The military decided the best window was on Saturday while it was over the Atlantic within U.S. territorial waters.

China protested the downing and said it reserves the right for any necessary reaction to the U.S. move, according to a foreign ministry statement on Sunday. It said the U.S. overreacted and violated international practices after an accidental incursion of the balloon that was for civilian use.

China didn’t get advance notice of the plan to shoot down the balloon. U.S. officials communicated to Beijing that they’d reserve the right to take such action, but didn’t follow up with more details about the plan once it was decided.

“They successfully took it down and I want to compliment our aviators who did it, and we’ll have more to report on this a little later,” Biden told reporters.

News of the balloon entering U.S. airspace led Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a visit to China to meet with President Xi Jinping and prompted growing calls from Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, to shoot it down. On its way, the balloon passed over Montana, home to intercontinental ballistic missile silos.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said China was using the balloon “in an attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States” and the U.S. plan to take it down involved “closely monitoring its path and intelligence collection activities.”

Officials expect U.S.-China relations to be difficult moving forward, but said that both countries have reasons to put the incident behind them. A second Chinese balloon spotted in Latin America that defense officials said was also conducting espionage activities is not a concern to the U.S., a person familiar with the matter said.

U.S. officials expect to learn more about the balloon’s capabilities from a recovery operation under way off the coast, where U.S. vessels are on site.

A single missile from an F-22 fighter jet brought down the balloon at 2:39 p.m. Eastern time, using the first available opportunity to bring it down without harming Americans, according to two senior officials who briefed reporters. The F-22 was flying at about 58,000 feet when it fired an Aim-9X Sidewinder missile at the balloon at between 60,000 and 65,000 feet, the officials said.

That followed an odyssey that took it into Alaskan airspace on Jan. 28, into a swing over Canada two days later and back over the U.S. on Tuesday. The overflight had intelligence value to the U.S. by allowing officials to study and scrutinize the balloon and its equipment along the way, a defense official said. The U.S. also took steps to mitigate the balloon’s intelligence gathering, the official said.

The military action shows that the administration is “responding effectively to the PRC’s unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” Austin said in a statement, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

Rep. Mike Rogers, an Alabama Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, said he was “deeply concerned” that the administration allowed the balloon to cross the U.S. It’s “another example of weakness by the Biden administration,” he said in a statement.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer praised Biden’s leadership.

Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand said the joint North American Aerospace Defense Command, known as NORAD, was “tracking and analyzing the trajectory and actions of the high-altitude surveillance balloon.”

Canada “unequivocally supports the actions taken,” she said in a statement.

The Federal Aviation Administration temporarily closed a section of U.S. airspace along the Carolina coast and ordered a halt to arrivals and departures at four airports on Saturday to allow for the military to conduct its operation.

On Friday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed that the high-altitude balloon belonged to China, but said that it was a civilian airship conducting climate research and accidentally blew off course. The Pentagon rejected that explanation, saying the balloon carried surveillance equipment and was maneuverable.

Blinken’s trip to China starting Sunday had been meant to build on diplomacy between Biden and Xi at last year’s Group of 20 summit. Blinken said he will visit Beijing when conditions are appropriate, without elaborating what that would entail.