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US fighter jet shoots down suspected Chinese spy balloon with missile

SURFSIDE BEACH: On Saturday, a US military fighter jet shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina. This happened a week after the balloon first flew into US airspace, which started a public spying scandal that made Sino-US relations worse.

President Joe Biden said he gave an order to bring down the balloon on Wednesday, but the Pentagon said it should wait until it could be done over open water to protect civilians from falling debris from the balloon that was thousands of feet above commercial air traffic.

Biden said, “They were able to shoot it down, and I want to thank the pilots who did it.”

Several fighter and refuelling planes were involved in the mission, but a senior US military official said that only one plane, an F-22 fighter jet from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, fired the shot at 2:39 p.m. (1939 GMT) using a single AIM-9X supersonic, heat-seeking, air-to-air missile.

China was very upset about the military attack on an airship that China says was used for meteorology and other scientific purposes and had wandered into US airspace “completely by accident.” US officials flatly denied China’s claims.

In a statement, China’s foreign ministry said, “It was clear that China had asked the US to handle this in a calm, professional, and restrained way.” “The US insisted on using force, which was clearly too much.”

The balloon was shot down about six nautical miles off the US coast in the Atlantic Ocean, where the water isn’t too deep. This could help in the coming days to find parts of the Chinese surveillance equipment.

One US military official said that the debris field was spread out over 11 km (7 miles) of ocean, and that there were several US military ships there.

Shortly before the balloon went down, the US government stopped flights into and out of three airports in South Carolina: Wilmington, Myrtle Beach, and Charleston. At the time, they said it was part of a “national security effort” that they couldn’t talk about. On Saturday afternoon, flights went back to normal.

Even though Saturday’s shootdown ended the military part of the spying story, Biden is likely to continue to face close political scrutiny from Republicans in Congress who say he didn’t act quickly enough.

A high-level government official said that after the balloon was shot down, the US government talked directly with China about what happened. The official said that the State Department also told its allies and partners around the world what was going on.

There are still questions about how much information China might have gotten from the balloon’s trip across the U.S.

On January 28, the balloon flew into US airspace in Alaska. On January 30, it moved into Canadian airspace. Then, on January 31, it came back into US airspace over northern Idaho, a US defence official said. Once it went over US land, it couldn’t go back to open water, which made it hard to shoot it down.

US officials didn’t tell the public that the balloon was flying over the US until Thursday.

“It’s clear that the Biden administration wanted to keep Congress and the American people from knowing about this national security failure,” said US Representative Mike Rogers, a Republican who heads the House Armed Services Committee.

Biden’s emphasis on the fact that he told the balloon to be shot down as soon as possible a few days ago on Saturday could be a way to answer these critics.

Former president Donald Trump, who could run against Biden in 2024, said this week that the balloon should be shot down and has tried to show that he is stronger on China than Biden. The relationship between the US and China is likely to be a big issue in the 2024 race for president.

A US official said that when the balloon showed up, Washington called it a “clear violation” of US sovereignty and told Beijing about the shootdown on Saturday.

Still, on Saturday, officials seemed to downplay the impact of the balloon on US national security.

The senior US defence official said, “Our assessment—and we’ll learn more as we pick up the debris—was that it wasn’t likely to add much to what the Chinese already had, like satellites in low-Earth orbit—in terms of intelligence.”

A photographer for Reuters who saw the shootdown said that a jet shot out a stream that hit the balloon, but there was no explosion. Then it started to fall.

The Pentagon thinks that the balloon was part of a group of spy balloons that came from China. On Friday, it was said that another Chinese balloon was flying over Latin America.

“Chinese balloons have been seen over countries on all five continents, including East Asia, South Asia, and Europe, over the past few years,” a US official said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken had planned to go to China this week, but he had to put it off because of the suspicious balloon. He was supposed to go on Friday.

The postponement of Blinken’s trip, which Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping had agreed to in November, was a blow to those who saw it as a long overdue chance to fix the relationship between the two countries, which was getting more and more tense.

China wants a stable relationship with the US so that it can focus on its economy, which has been hurt by the now-abandoned zero-COVID policy and ignored by foreign investors who are afraid of what they see as a return of government interference in the market.