US shoots down Chinese spy balloon and moves to recover wreckage

The US has shot down the Chinese spy balloon that has been flying over the country for almost a week, shortly after President Joe Biden said he would “take care” of a situation that has derailed efforts to improve US-China relations.

Defence secretary Lloyd Austin said US fighter jets had on Saturday afternoon shot down the surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina in American airspace and over its territorial waters.

Austin said the president had on Wednesday authorised the Pentagon to shoot it down “as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives under the balloon’s path”.

The defence secretary added that the “lawful action” had shown that Biden and his national security team would “always put the safety and security of the American people first while responding effectively to the PRC’s unacceptable violation of our sovereignty”.

The Federal Aviation Administration closed airspace around Charleston and Myrtle Beach between 12.45pm and 2.45pm. The White House and Pentagon declined to comment on the balloon, which has been in North American airspace since early this week.

Some lawmakers had called on Biden to order the military to shoot down the craft, which is estimated to be the size of several buses. The Pentagon presented an option to the president to do so earlier this week when it was over a military base that houses US nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles. But Biden decided against the option because of the risk posed to civilians on the ground.

Earlier on Saturday, the Pentagon said a second Chinese spy balloon had been detected over Latin America but did not elaborate.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken on Friday cancelled a visit to China because of the discovery of the balloon. He had been expected to meet President Xi Jinping. He would have been the first Biden administration cabinet secretary to visit China.

Speaking after cancelling his trip on Friday, Blinken said the presence of the balloon was an “irresponsible act” and a “clear violation of US sovereignty” and international law. He added that China taking the action “on the eve of my planned visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have”.

China has expressed regret over the incident but rejected suggestions that the balloon was spying. The Chinese foreign ministry said it was a “civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes” that strayed from its planned course due to winds and “limited self-steering capability”.

Pentagon spokesperson General Patrick Ryder on Friday dismissed the Chinese explanation. “We know that it’s a surveillance balloon.”

Some Republicans criticised Biden for waiting so long to shoot down the balloon, which flew over US and Canadian territory from Alaska to South Carolina, allowing it to monitory sensitive military sites.

“Allowing a spy balloon from . . . China to travel across the entire continental United States before contesting its presence is a disastrous projection of weakness by the White House,” said Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate armed services committee.

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter

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