The U.S. said Monday it is continuing to collect pieces of the high-altitude Chinese spy balloon it shot down over the Atlantic Ocean last weekend and that intelligence experts have started to analyze them.
"They have recovered some remnants off the surface of the sea,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters, but said that “weather conditions did not permit much undersea surveillance of the debris field,” which extended for more than 11 kilometers (7 miles) about 10 kilometers (6 miles) off the coast of the southern state of South Carolina.
A U.S. fighter jet, on orders from President Joe Biden, shot down the balloon Saturday after it had traversed the U.S. for more than a week, including over key military installations. China has claimed it was an errant weather observation aircraft with no military purpose, but the U.S. said it was a sophisticated surveillance balloon.
Kirby said U.S. dive teams will "in the coming days be able to get down there and take a better look at what's on the bottom of the ocean, but it's just started."
He said the U.S. has no intention of sending any of the pieces back to China.
Kirby said steps were taken during the balloon’s eight-day flight over the U.S. and a far western part of Canada to “mitigate” its ability to spy on the U.S., while "at the same time increasing and improving our ability to collect intelligence and information from it."
"We're still analyzing the information that we were able to collect off of the balloon before we shot it out of the sky and now, we're going to recover it and I suspect we may learn even more,” he said.
Kirby said one detail is already known, that the balloon was not merely drifting from above Alaska, the northwestern-most U.S. state, across the entire country to the East Coast, but had propellers and steering to give it a measure of control, even as it was swept along in the high-altitude jet stream winds.
"It is true that this balloon had the ability to maneuver itself — to speed up, to slow down and to turn. So, it had propellers, it had a rudder, if you will, to allow it to change direction," he said. "But the most important navigational vector was the jet stream itself, the winds at such a high altitude," about 18,000 meters (11 miles) above the Earth.
China said Monday that the decision by the United States to shoot down the balloon was a test of Washington’s “sincerity in improving and stabilizing China-U.S. relations and its way of handling crises.”
Biden administration officials called the episode an “unacceptable violation of our sovereignty” by China.
Beijing is denying such a claim, insisting that it was a civilian scientific aircraft that had blown into U.S. airspace by mistake.
Subsequently, U.S. defense officials said China had sent balloons over U.S. territory three times during the administration of former President Donald Trump and once earlier during Biden’s White House tenure, although not for the extended period as with last week’s flight. Trump denied it happened during his presidency, calling it “fake disinformation.”
In a statement released Sunday, Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng lodged an official protest to the downing of the balloon, describing it as an overreaction and a “serious violation of international practice.”
Xie vowed that China will “resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests” of the balloon’s private operator.
The discovery of the balloon prompted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a much-anticipated visit to Beijing designed to improve relations between the two economic giants that have soured in recent years.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters Monday that Beijing hopes Washington “will work with China to properly handle our differences so as to avoid miscalculation or damage to our mutual trust.”
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse.