Chinese Spy Balloon Fallout Roils Washington and Beijing

Randall Hill | Reuters
  • The decision to shoot down China's balloon off the Carolina coast was "unacceptable and irresponsible," a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said at a news conference in Beijing on Monday.
  • The Chinese government insists the balloon that moved across the United States for the past week was "a civilian airship used for meteorological and other research purposes," and not a spy balloon.
  • American officials dismiss this explanation, and say the high-altitude unmanned vessel was designed to collect military intelligence, not weather data.

WASHINGTON — In the wake of a U.S. missile attack Saturday that destroyed a Chinese surveillance balloon, political and diplomatic fallout ramped up Monday in both Beijing and Washington.

The latest Chinese spy balloon is believed to be the fifth Chinese surveillance balloon detected over the continental United States since 2017, John Kirby, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, told reporters on a call Monday.

Three of those balloons crossed into U.S. territory during the Trump administration, and there was one previously during Joe Biden's presidency. But each of those incursions "was for brief periods of time, nothing at all like what we saw last week."

Donald Trump and several of his former intelligence chiefs have disputed the idea that surveillance balloons flew over the U.S. during his presidency, saying they were never briefed about anything like this.

Kirby appeared to confirm this Monday, telling reporters that the three breaches were only discovered after Trump left office.

"We have reached out to key officials from the previous administration and offered them briefings on the forensics that we did," said Kirby, and will "walk them through what we learned."

Kirby also revealed new information about the balloon itself, including it had propellers.

"This balloon has the ability to maneuver itself, to speed up, or slow down and to turn, so it has propellers ... that allow it to to change directions," he said.

Flying 60,000 feet in the air, the balloon did not have a steering system like a car or a plane, however.

"The presence of propellers does not mean that you don't still have limited maneuverability," said Kirby, adding that the propellers were on the top of the balloon. Still, he said, "it has the capability to loiter, and to introduce some limited maneuvers."

The balloon itself was massive, about 200 feet tall, and the payload attached to it was similar in size to a regional jetliner, weighing more than 2,000 pounds, according to NBC News.

This description of the balloon ran counter to the Chinese government's consistent claim that the balloon was simply an errant weather balloon that was blown off course, which then continued blowing off course directly across the entire United States.

The decision to shoot down the balloon was "unacceptable and irresponsible," a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said at a news conference in Beijing on Monday.

She insisted that the military surveillance balloon was merely "a civilian airship used for meteorological and other research purposes," and she claimed that shooting it down violated Chinese sovereignty.

Kirby dismissed this explanation. The balloon "was conducting surveillance over sensitive military sites inside the United States," he said.

And while the U.S. military did not immediately shoot down the balloon, it did take steps "to mitigate whatever [intelligence] collection capability the balloon would have over our sensitive military sites," said Kirby.

The U.S. military was still gathering debris from the balloon Monday in shallow waters off the Carolina coast, he added.

In response to Republican criticism of Biden for not shooting down the balloon earlier in the week, Kirby argued that the time during which the balloon floated over the continental United States presented the military and intelligence agencies with "a terrific opportunity" to collect intelligence.

"We had the time to put together an effort of our own to learn about this particular balloon, and what its capabilities are," Kirby told reporters. "And we're going to get more information from the recovery."

The balloon incident has strained the already fragile U.S.-China relationship, weakened in recent years by Beijing's territorial expansion in the South China Sea and its aggressive effort to control Taiwan.

The balloon's presence over the United States in the past week prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to indefinitely postpone a diplomatic visit to Beijing that was to begin last Friday.

"The nascent US-China détente is now in critical condition, if not entirely dead, and any future détentes would be similarly vulnerable to derailment by domestic politics," Gabriel Wildau, managing director at advisory firm Teneo, said in a note.

On Capitol Hill, both Republicans and Democrats demanded more transparency from the Biden administration on how and when the White House learned of the balloon, and why Biden waited a week to give the order to shoot it down.

In the coming days, Biden administration officials will deliver a classified briefing on the balloon to members of the so-called Gang of Eight, the Republican and Democratic leaders of both the House and Senate, and the top two members of the Senate and House Intelligence committees. 

A briefing for the rest of the Senate will take place on Feb. 15, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced at a Sunday news conference.

Several congressional hearings on U.S.-China relations will also take place this week. The hearings were arranged before the balloon was discovered, but the incident is likely to change the tenor of the hearings and the questions posed to witnesses.

On Tuesday at 10 a.m. ET, the House Financial Services Committee will hold a hearing on "Combatting the Economic Threat from China." 

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing Thursday morning entitled "Evaluating U.S.-China Policy In The Era of Strategic Competition."

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