US downing of Chinese spy balloon ends chapter in diplomatic crisis
published : 5 Feb 2023 at 13:09
WASHINGTON: The United States shot down a Chinese spy balloon Saturday that had spent the past week traversing the country, an explosive end to a drama that put a diplomatic crisis between the world’s two great powers onto television screens in real time.
The balloon, which spent five days travelling in a diagonal southeast route from Idaho to the Carolinas, had moved off the coast by midday Saturday and was shot down within moments of its arrival over the Atlantic Ocean.
“I told them to shoot it down,” President Joe Biden told reporters in Hagerstown, Maryland, on his way to Camp David Saturday afternoon. “They said to me, let’s wait until the safest place to do it.”
That time and place came at 2.39pm, Pentagon officials said, about 6 miles off the coast of South Carolina. The Federal Aviation Administration had paused departures and arrivals at airports in Wilmington, North Carolina, and in Myrtle Beach and Charleston in South Carolina. One of two F-22 fighter jets from Langley Air Force Base fired a Sidewinder air-to-air missile, downing the balloon, which was flying at an altitude of 60,000 to 65,000 feet. The F-22s were at 58,000 feet, with other American fighters in support.
The Pentagon said that Navy and Coast Guard personnel would conduct a recovery effort to retrieve the debris of the balloon, which landed in relatively shallow water. US national security agencies hope the material they collect will add value to their database of Chinese intelligence gathering.
The Chinese foreign ministry declared its “strong discontent and protest” about the United States’ downing of the balloon. In a statement, the ministry said that China had told Washington repeatedly that the balloon was a civilian aircraft that had inadvertently flown over the United States and its presence was “totally accidental.”
“In these circumstances, for the United States to insist on using armed force is clearly an excessive reaction that seriously violates international convention,” the statement said. “China will resolutely defend the legitimate rights and interests of the enterprise involved, and retains the right to respond further.”
The president was alerted by the Pentagon on Tuesday that a spy balloon had entered continental US airspace near Idaho, White House officials said, and asked for military options. By Wednesday, the balloon was hovering over Montana and a full-blown diplomatic crisis was underway, puncturing recent efforts in Washington and Beijing to lower US-China tensions.
Pentagon officials advised then against shooting down the balloon, whose belly structure was roughly the size of three buses, because of the possibility of harm to civilians and infrastructure while it was over land. Pentagon officials also said they did not view the intelligence threat from the balloon as any more extensive than what China could glean from a satellite.
But the arrival — and extended stay — of the balloon over American territory prompted furious calls from senior US officials to their Chinese counterparts, criticism from Republican lawmakers of the White House response, and on Friday, the cancellation of a visit to China by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. It would have been the first trip by a Biden Cabinet secretary to Beijing. In announcing the cancellation of his trip, Blinken said the entry of the spy balloon was a “clear violation of US sovereignty and international law.”
US officials conveyed to Chinese officials several times in recent days that the US military might shoot down the spy balloon. Blinken told a Chinese diplomat in Washington on Wednesday evening that the US government had the right to take any actions to protect its interests, and he said the same thing on a phone call Friday with Wang Yi, the top Chinese foreign policy official, a senior administration official said.
Evan Medeiros, a Georgetown University professor who was senior Asia director on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, said the episode underscored the risks of accidents or miscalculation, as well as “the role of domestic politics in American debates about China — and the role of Congress in interpreting Chinese strategic intentions, including by constraining the administration’s options.”
Seven days over US skies
Pentagon officials said the spy balloon, which was remotely manoeuvrable to some degree by the Chinese but still dependent on the jet stream for travel, began its controlled drift into American territory on Jan 28, when it entered Alaskan airspace near the Aleutian Islands. It first appeared to trackers at US Northern Command to be just another one of China’s probes around the edges of America’s defensive borders.
A senior administration official said China had developed a fleet of balloons to conduct surveillance operations that have been spotted over countries across five continents. They typically orbit at about 60,000 feet, and have occasionally strayed into American territory. Earlier, a senior defense official said that had happened three times during the Trump administration and once previously during the Biden administration.
Officials said the most recent balloon, equipped with solar panels to power propulsion and cameras and surveillance technology, exited US territory Monday and spent the day over Canada’s Northwest Territories. But it was back over the United States Tuesday after entering through northern Idaho, much to the surprise of officials at Northern Command as well as at the Pentagon.
Gen Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, alerted Biden.
By Wednesday, when the balloon had made its way to the skies above Billings, Montana, Pentagon officials were alarmed because the state is home to the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, one of three US Air Force bases that operate and maintain intercontinental ballistic missiles. A Pentagon official described shock at what officials viewed as a blatant, and poorly concealed, effort at spying. A senior Biden administration official called the move audacious.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, in the Philippines at the time, called a meeting Wednesday of senior military and defense officials to review military options, per Biden’s order. Milley and Austin advised against shooting down the balloon while it was over land.
They also did not alert the public, as officials at the Pentagon, the White House, the State Department, along with the intelligence agencies, discussed what to do. Blinken’s trip to China was scheduled to begin in days, and the administration had decisions to make.
State Department officials began intense discussions Wednesday about whether Blinken should make the trip, a senior administration official said.
Later that day, Wendy Sherman, the deputy secretary of state, summoned Zhu Haiquan, a senior Chinese diplomat, to the State Department. He arrived about 6.30pm. Sherman and Blinken told Zhu his government’s spying activities were unacceptable and demanded that China remove the balloon from US airspace, US officials said.
Sherman and Blinken told Zhu that the balloon would have a serious impact on Blinken’s planned trip. Blinken also said the United States had the right to take action to protect its national interests, alluding to the possibility of shooting down the machine.
In Beijing, the US ambassador, R. Nicholas Burns, also told the Chinese Foreign Ministry that its government had to remove the balloon, officials said. Discussions continued behind closed doors.
But the balloon was hard to hide. By Wednesday afternoon there were eyewitness reports out of Montana and a ground stop at the airport in Billings. At around the same time, Gen. Glen VanHerck, the commander of Northern Command, abruptly canceled a lunch with reporters only 45 minutes before it was to start, arousing suspicions.
By Thursday afternoon, Courtney Kube of NBC had reported that the military was monitoring a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon over Montana. A short time later, the Pentagon held a news conference confirming that report.
Biden administration officials said they had planned to notify the public regardless. “We acted to notify the public as quickly as possible as to the facts regarding the balloon,” said Brig Gen Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary.
Some Republicans began criticising the president for not ordering that the balloon be shot down immediately. Then they turned on Blinken for not cancelling his trip.
At a meeting Thursday evening, Blinken, Austin, Milley and Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, decided that the trip did not make sense, officials said. On Friday morning, Biden affirmed their decision.
The Chinese foreign ministry tried to salvage the situation by issuing its statement expressing regret and asserting that the balloon was an off-course civilian machine. Blinken called Wang to tell him the trip was off and admonish his government over what the US secretary called an “irresponsible act.”
By that day, the balloon was over Kansas and heading, helped in part by the jet stream, to the Eastern Seaboard. Pentagon officials were able to gauge its projected path and made plans to shoot it down once it reached the Atlantic. Officials wanted to do it while it was still technically in US airspace.
After the balloon’s first sighting over Montana, some residents in its path had taken to social media to promise they would shoot it down themselves. The threats prompted the York County sheriff’s office in South Carolina on Saturday to post a warning on Twitter: “Don’t try to shoot it!! Your rifle rounds WILL NOT reach it. Be responsible. What goes up will come down, including your bullets.”
Hours later, a Sidewinder missile did the job.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.