Republicans lashed into Joe Biden on Sunday over his handling of the Chinese balloon, shot down after floating across the US for days in an incident that has strained already taut U.S.-Chinese relations.
Marco Rubio, vice-chair of the Senate intelligence committee, criticised the U.S. President for waiting so long to alert the public as the alleged spy balloon made its “unprecedented” flight over America, saying this amounted to “dereliction of duty”.
He described the overflight as a brazen effort by Beijing timed to embarrass Mr. Biden just before his State of the Union message on Tuesday, and to disrupt a since-canceled China visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Mr. Rubio, appearing on CNN, said Beijing’s message was: “We have the ability to do this, and America can’t do anything about it.”
And Representative Mike Turner, who chairs the House intelligence committee, used a football comparison in blasting Mr. Biden for waiting to down the balloon.
“Clearly the President taking it down over the Atlantic is... sort of like tackling the quarterback after the game is over. The satellite had completed its mission. It should never have been allowed to enter the United States,” he said.
In Beijing, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Saturday expressed China’s “strong dissatisfaction and protests against the use of force by the United States to attack the unmanned civilian airship”.
It added that China reserved “the right to make further necessary responses”.
Beijing has said the balloon was primarily gathering weather data and that it had been blown off course.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, asked about possible further consequences for China, told CNN: “You can expect any further developments will be appropriate in response to what happened.”
He stressed that the operation was carried out “in a very effective, excellent way”, without damage or injury on the ground.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the former chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Sunday that he expected the balloon’s debris would be retrieved “relatively shortly” from waters off South Carolina.
It was shot down on Saturday by a missile fired from a U.S. fighter jet.
Asked if he thought elements in the Chinese military might have launched the balloon intentionally to disrupt the Blinken visit — the Secretary’s first to China since Biden took office — he said, “Clearly, I think that’s the case.”
Mr. Mullen said the craft was maneuverable and he rejected China’s suggestion that it might have blown off course.
“It has propellers on it,” he said. “This was not an accident. This was deliberate. It was intelligence.”