China has threatened “further actions” in response to America’s “serious overreaction” in the downing of a suspected spy balloon.
The white aircraft was shot out of the sky off the South Carolina coast on Saturday after days of intrigue, while diplomatic relations soured further between Washington and Beijing.
US President Joe Biden ordered the object be brought down, with a defence official saying it was a spy balloon that China intended to use on sensitive military sites.
But Chinese officials insisted it was a meteorological and scientific research device that had been blown off course.
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In a statement on Sunday, Beijing’s foreign ministry said: “China will resolutely uphold the relevant company’s legitimate rights and interests, and at the same time reserving the right to take further actions in response.”
Mr Biden’s order was an “obvious overreaction” that “seriously violated international conventions”, it added.
The balloon was shot down by an F-22 fighter aircraft, about six nautical miles off the coast of South Carolina, near Myrtle Beach, with ships deployed in the water to mount the recovery operation.
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The US president said he had wanted the balloon shot down when it was first spotted over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday – close to a nuclear missile silo field at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
It had flown over the Aleutian Islands, off the coast of Alaska, and through Canada before entering the US.
But Mr Biden said he was advised to wait until it was over water because of the risks of falling debris.
“They successfully took it down and I want to compliment our aviators who did it,” he said on Saturday.
Ahead of the operation, flights were halted at three airports including Myrtle Beach International Airport due to a “national security effort”, the Federal Aviation Administration said.
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The operation to down the balloon caught the attention of people on the ground.
Some, including local Peter Flynn, pictured above, gathered on Myrtle Beach to watch the aircraft being fired upon, while others were caught more off guard.
“I did not anticipate waking up to be in a Top Gun movie today,” said Ashlyn Preaux, who saw fighter jets circling the balloon from her home in Forestbrook, South Carolina, before it went down.
It had been flying between 60,000ft and 65,000ft.
What happens next?
US officials want to recover debris from the downed balloon, which is spread out over seven miles.
The US Coast Guard, Navy, and FBI are all involved in the recovery effort, with divers and unmanned submarines expected to comb the sea floor over the next few days.
Sky’s US correspondent Mark Stone said: “The aim will be to harvest a potential goldmine of information”, with investigators likely hoping to reconstruct the balloon’s payload and learn from it.
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Be in no doubt that the shooting down of the spy balloon is an escalation.
It’s an escalation the Americans no doubt felt they had no option but to take, but one that will be hard for both sides to row back from.
If the Chinese response initially had been relatively apologetic, speaking of “regret” that what it described as a weather balloon had “accidentally” ended up in US airspace, their tone now is significantly angrier.
It is part of the Chinese play book to simply deny. Even if the Americans say they can prove from the gathered debris that the balloon was spying, expect accusations that the claims are being made to “smear” China.
The problem is that just as the US will have felt pressure to shoot, the Chinese may feel pressure to take some form of retaliatory action, especially if it sticks to the line that this was a civilian craft.
There has already been a large diplomatic cost for seemingly very little intelligence gain, many experts have weighed in saying such a balloon is unlikely to have learned more than what could be gathered from satellites.
Perhaps the intention was to provoke or test the limits, but whatever it was, tit-for-tat actions become hard to avoid in a relationship slowly sliding towards a Cold War-style stand-off.
Recent overtures on both sides that they should work to prevent the relationship deteriorating further feel a long way off this morning
The row between the two superpowers over the balloon’s objective comes at a sensitive time for their relationship, which has been on rocky ground for years.
It prompted US secretary of state Antony Blinken to abruptly cancel a trip to Beijing, which would likely have taken huge amounts of diplomatic effort on both sides to organise.
At a meeting on the sidelines of a G20 summit last year, China’s President Xi Jinping had acknowledged the competition between the countries must not descend into conflict.