WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration is considering a plan to shoot down a large Chinese balloon suspected of conducting surveillance on the U.S. military, by bringing it down once it is above the Atlantic Ocean where the remnants could potentially be recovered, according to four U.S. officials.
One of the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive operation, said President Joe Biden had given the go-ahead. In a brief remark Saturday in response to a reporter’s question about the balloon, Biden said: “We’re going to take care of it.”
The balloon was spotted Saturday morning over the Carolinas as it approached the Atlantic coast. In preparation for the operation, the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily closed airspace over the Carolina coastline, including the airports in Charleston and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina, until at least 2:45 p.m. EST Saturday.
Biden had been inclined to down the balloon over land when he was first briefed on it on Tuesday, but Pentagon officials advised against it, warning that the potential risk to people on the ground outweighed the assessment of potential Chinese intelligence gains.
The public disclosure of the balloon this week prompted the cancellation of a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing scheduled for Sunday for talks aimed at reducing U.S.-China tensions. The Chinese government on Saturday sought to play down the cancellation.
“In actuality, the U.S. and China have never announced any visit, the U.S. making any such announcement is their own business, and we respect that,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement Saturday morning.
China has continued to claim that the balloon was merely a weather research “airship” that had been blown off course. The Pentagon rejected that out of hand — as well as China’s contention that it was not being used for surveillance and had only limited navigational ability.
The balloon was spotted over Montana, which is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
Meanwhile, people with binoculars and telephoto lenses tried to find the “spy balloon” in the sky as it headed southeastward over Kansas and Missouri at 60,000 feet (18,300 meters).
The Pentagon also acknowledged reports of a second balloon flying over Latin America. “We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a question about the second balloon.
Blinken, who had been due to depart Washington for Beijing late Friday, said he had told senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in a phone call that sending the balloon over the U.S. was “an irresponsible act and that (China’s) decision to take this action on the eve of my visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have.”
Uncensored reactions on the Chinese internet mirrored the official government stance that the U.S. was hyping the situation.
Many users made jokes about the balloon. Some said that since the U.S. had put restrictions on the technology that China is able to buy to weaken the Chinese tech industry, they couldn’t control the balloon.
Others called it the “wandering balloon” in a pun that refers to the newly released Chinese sci-fi film called “The Wandering Earth 2.” In a sign of censorship, the “wandering balloon” hashtag on Weibo was no longer searchable by Saturday evening.
Still others used it as a chance to poke fun at U.S. defenses, saying it couldn’t even defend against a balloon, and nationalist influencers leapt to use the news to mock the U.S.
“The U.S. is hyping this as a national security threat posed by China to the U.S. This type of military threat, in actuality, we haven’t done this. And compared with the U.S. military threat normally aimed at us, can you say it’s just little? Their surveillance planes, their submarines, their naval ships are all coming near our borders,” Chinese military expert Chen Haoyang of the Taihe Institute said on Phoenix TV, one of the major national TV outlets.
China has denied any claims of spying and said it is a civilian-use balloon intended for meteorology research.
On Saturday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs again emphasized that the balloon’s journey was out of its control and urged the U.S. not to “smear” it based on the balloon.
Wang said China “has always strictly followed international law, we do not accept any groundless speculation and hype. Faced with unexpected situations, both parties need to keep calm, communicate in a timely manner, avoid misjudgments and manage differences.”
Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore, said China’s apology did not appear sincere.
“In the meantime, the relationship will not improve in the near future … the gap is huge.”
Associated Press writer Huizhong Wu in Taipei and researcher Henry Hou in Beijing contributed to this report.