U.S. rules out returning balloon debris to China

Initial information gathered from the balloon, the White House said on Monday with confidence, that it is a surveillance balloon

Updated - February 09, 2023 12:28 pm IST

Published - February 07, 2023 02:43 pm IST - Washington:

Before it was being shot down by a fighter jet on Saturday, John Kirby said they had gathered enough vital information about the balloon. File

Before it was being shot down by a fighter jet on Saturday, John Kirby said they had gathered enough vital information about the balloon. File | Photo Credit: Reuters

The United States on Monday ruled out returning to China the debris of the surveillance balloon which was shot down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday.

The U.S. military intensified its efforts to collect the remnants of the high-altitude surveillance balloon from China that floated over the United States over several days last week from Montana to South Carolina.

Initial information gathered from the balloon, the White House said on Monday with confidence, that it is a surveillance balloon. It violated international law and its sovereignty, officials said.

“I know of no such intention or plans to return it," said National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, adding that the U.S. military have recovered some remnants off the surface of the sea and they are still in the process of collecting them from under waters.

Before it was being shot down by a fighter jet on Saturday, Mr. Kirby said they had gathered enough vital information about the balloon.

“We're still analysing the information that we were able to collect off of the balloon before we shot it out of the sky and now we're going to recover it and I suspect we may learn even more," he said.

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The balloon, he told reporters, was not merely drifting but had propellers and steering to give a measure of control, even as it was swept along in high altitude jet stream winds.

"It is true that this balloon had the ability to maneuver itself -- to speed up, to slow down and to turn. So it had propellers, it had a rudder, if you will, to allow it to change direction," Mr. Kirby said.

According to General Glen VanHerck, Commander of Northern Command, the balloon was up to 200 feet in height. It carried a payload weighing several thousand pounds, roughly the size of a regional jet aircraft, he said.

“China's, we believe, irresponsible action was visible for the American and the world to see. Not only that at the same time a second PRC surveillance balloon was seen traversing Latin America,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters at her daily news conference.

“It is up to China to show it is serious about its words of being a responsible country that it wants to build on the meeting that the president had with President Xi very recently. So it's up to China to figure out what kind of relationship that they want,” she said.

As the balloon floated over continental America, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed his trip to China.

According to Jean-Pierre, President Joe Biden directed the military, the intelligence community to collect against the balloon so that they would learn more about China's capabilities and tradecraft.

“At the same time we protected against Chinese intelligence collection because we knew exactly where the balloon was going,” she said.

“The military recommended taking the balloon down over water following the determination by military commanders that there was undue risk of debris causing harm to civilians while the balloon was over land in Alaska, Canada, or the continental United States,” she said.

“On Wednesday, the President directed the military to take it down at the first available opportunity when it could be done with safety, especially as we're thinking about Americans lives and being safe there, while maximising our ability to recover the payload,” she said.

Shooting the balloon down over water wasn't just the safest option, it maximised the chance of recovering the payload, giving the US a better chance to get information from the Chinese surveillance balloon payload.

“But I think the bottom line here and this is something that we want to make very clear, is that look, what China did was unacceptable,” Ms. Jean-Pierre said.

“We protected civilians and we gained more intel while protecting our own sensitive information,” she said.

State Department Spokesperson Ned Price told reporters that China knows precisely what it was.

“Ultimately, the course of action was one that was put forward and executed by the Department of Defence. When it comes to what we've heard from the PRC, I'm just not going to give that too much oxygen. Let me see if I can state it as clearly as I can, the PRC knows precisely what this was,” he said.

“The PRC (People’s Republic of China) knows precisely why this was in our airspace. The PRC knows precisely what this was doing over the United States. Ultimately the PRC knows precisely why we did what we did. The secretary made the point on Friday that if the shoe were on the other foot, if something analogous were to have happened within PRC airspace, you can only imagine the response from Beijing,” Mr. Price said.

The U.S., he asserted, has taken practical steps since the time this high-altitude surveillance balloon was detected to mitigate its ability to collect intelligence against sensitive sites, to mitigate any threat it could pose to the American people.

“More than that in a way we flipped the script because we've trained quite a bit of capabilities of our own at this high altitude surveillance balloon while it was violating our airspace,” he said.

“We learned quite a bit about it in the practice in general, the technology that was on board. There is an active effort underway to recover what is left of this high altitude surveillance balloon on the surface of the ocean. In the coming days, there will be an effort to collect what we can from the bottom of the ocean,” Mr. Price said.

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