The United States early on Sunday shot down a Chinese surveillance balloon that had floated over American airspace for several days, triggering the latest diplomatic crisis amid already worsening relations between the world’s two biggest powers.
Beijing reacted angrily to the shooting down of what the U.S. called a “surveillance balloon” but Chinese authorities maintained was a civilian airship used for meteorological purposes that had drifted off course. On Sunday, the Chinese military said that it now “reserve[s] the right” to take the same measures if a similar situation arose.
Noting that the U.S. government had said that the balloon did not present a military or physical threat, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that “the U.S. use of force is a clear overreaction and a serious violation of international practice.”
“China will resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of the company concerned, and reserves the right to make further responses if necessary,” said a statement.
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Ballooning diplomatic crisis
The appearance of the balloon in the skies over the western U.S. state of Montana sparked an unexpected diplomatic row at a time when both sides were looking to stabilise increasingly tense relations. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called off a visit to China that was set to begin on Monday, and which would have been the first by a top U.S. diplomat since 2018.
With the balloon making its way east across the continental U.S. and finally heading towards the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, U.S. President Joe Biden ordered for it to be shot down. He had decided against doing so previously because of fears of damage from falling debris.
In a background briefing, a senior U.S. defence official said that an F-22 fighter aircraft from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia shot down the balloon off the coast of South Carolina and within U.S. airspace on Saturday afternoon (early Sunday in India), firing a single AIM-9X sidewinder missile from an altitude of 58,000 feet.
The shooting down brought a sharp response from Beijing. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Sunday that it “strongly disapproves of and protests against the U.S. attack on a civilian unmanned airship by force.”
“The U.S. used force to attack China’s civilian unmanned airship, which was an obvious overreaction,” added People’s Liberation Army Senior Colonel Tan Kefei, spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Defence. “We solemnly protest this move by the U.S. side and reserve the right to take necessary measures to deal with similar situations,” he said.
The senior U.S. defence official said that a plan was developed to shoot down the balloon once it was over water in U.S. airspace as “military commanders determined that there was undue risk of debris causing harm to civilians while the balloon was over land.”
‘Stopped balloon’s return to China’
“We also took immediate steps to protect against the balloon’s collection of sensitive information, mitigating its intelligence value to the PRC [People’s Republic of China],” the official said. “Shooting the balloon down addressed the surveillance threat posed to military installations and further neutralised any intelligence value it could have produced, preventing it from returning to the PRC.”
The official added that “the surveillance balloon’s overflight of U.S. territory was of intelligence value” as the U.S. was “able to study and scrutinise the balloon and its equipment”.
U.S. officials noted that similar Chinese surveillance balloons had previously been observed in South Asia and East Asia and “violated the sovereignty of other countries”. Last year, a surveillance balloon of similar appearance had been sighted in the skies above the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean.