Tensions increase as US recovers downed Chinese "spy balloon" debris

Thursday, February 16, 2023

FBI agents processing the debris on February 9.
Image: FBI.

The United States announced Monday a "significant" portion of the payload of a Chinese high-altitude balloon shot down over the Atlantic Ocean on February 4 had been recovered.

Officials said on February 9 the balloon was "likely capable of collecting and geo-locating communications" after a portion of its wreckage was taken to a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) lab for analysis. They alleged China conducted an espionage program targeting over 40 countries and connected the balloon to that project.

China acknowledged ownership of the balloon and claimed it was a meteorological research craft propelled by force majeure winds off its planned course.

The balloon over Billings, Montana on February 1.
Image: Chase Doak.

US officials believe the balloon entered their airspace on January 28. On February 3, US Department of Defense Press Secretary and Brigadier General Patrick S. Ryder said the balloon was floating eastward at about 60,000 feet (18,300 meters) above the central United States and demonstrating a capability to maneuver using motors and propellers.

Ryder explained it was "well above civilian air traffic [...] we do assess at this time that it does not pose a physical threat to people on the ground."

Presidential press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called the balloon's trajectory over the US a "clear violation of our sovereignty."

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, scheduled to leave for Beijing late February 4, canceled the trip, declaring the balloon's entrance into US airspace an "irresponsible act" during a call with Chinese diplomat Wang Yi. The meeting was to have included discussions about reinforcing communications and easing tensions between the two countries.

Advisors told US President Joe Biden the military should wait until the balloon was over water before shooting it down, so the debris would not threaten civilians. He authorized the downing of the craft on February 4 as it drifted off the coast of South Carolina.

China declared the downing "an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice", while saying it reserved "the right to take further actions in response."

Biden, emerging from Air Force One while traveling to Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, said: "They successfully took it down and I want to compliment our aviators who did it."

Meanwhile, a second balloon flew across Latin America; on February 3, Ryder confirmed that, saying: "We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon."

In a February 6 statement, China admitted ownership of the second balloon as well, countering it, too, was a civilian weather balloon forced off its path by wind.

US officials said this is not the first time balloons have crossed US airspace, claiming at least three did during Donald Trump's presidency and another earlier in Biden's presidency, although these flights were shorter.