A political partisan divide quickly emerged Sunday over the U.S. shoot-down of a suspected Chinese spy balloon, with the Biden administration defending its safe takedown offshore over the Atlantic Ocean while Republicans contended it should have been shot down more than a week ago before it could fly across the country over key military installations.
Pete Buttigieg, President Joe Biden’s transportation chief, told CNN’s “State of the Union” show that China’s deployment of the balloon was “an unacceptable intrusion on American sovereignty.” But he said the U.S. military, on Biden’s order last Wednesday, shot it down Saturday “without any damage to people or property…after assessment of the risks” of doing it over the U.S. mainland.
“This was done in a very effective way,” he said.
The debris from the missile strike on the balloon, which had been drifting at an altitude of more than 18,000 meters (11 miles), landed about 10 kilometers (6 miles) off the shoreline of the southern U.S. state of South Carolina. Buttigieg said the debris field stretched for more than 11 kilometers (7 miles).
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U.S. Navy ships were collecting the debris from the ocean, and it was being sent to the FBI’s laboratory outside Washington for analysis.
Republican lawmakers criticized Biden for not shooting down the balloon when it was first sighted January 28 over the Aleutian Islands, part of the far northwestern state of Alaska, rather than let it drift west to east for a week over the entire U.S. mainland, including numerous military bases.
China said the balloon was gathering meteorological data and driven off course by wind currents, sending it over the United States, which the U.S. dismissed as a cover for an intelligence-gathering mission. China has not said where it had intended for the balloon to go.
U.S. military officials said, however, that whatever intelligence the balloon may have transmitted back to China was inconsequential and no different from what China and the U.S. collect from spy satellites both deployed over each other’s territory.
Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a frequent Biden critic, told “Fox News Sunday” that the balloon mission was “a reminder of what the Chinese are capable of” and that it had “inflicted humiliation … an embarrassment” on the United States.
Another Republican, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, told CNN, “There was messaging behind this” from China.
“This is a failure I don’t understand,” Rubio said. “Why let it fly across the middle of the country over military bases? If we fly anything over China, they’re going to shoot it down.”
China’s foreign ministry said in a statement that the U.S. shoot-down of the balloon was “an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international standard practice,” and repeated its claim that the balloon was being used for meteorological research.
The airship first entered the U.S. air identification zone more than a week ago, then crossed into Canadian airspace. The U.S. Department of Defense said the balloon reentered U.S. airspace January 31. It was seen Thursday flying over Montana where U.S. nuclear missiles are siloed.
The U.S. has said it took technological measures to prevent the balloon from gathering any information as it crossed the country.
The discovery of the Chinese balloon is seen as ill-timed for Beijing. It happened right before Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to visit China and meet with President Xi Jinping. Blinken canceled his trip after the discovery of the balloon.
Dennis Wilder, a former China analyst with the CIA, told VOA that the incident comes at a sensitive time for China’s leader.
“President Xi Jinping is on what I would call a charm offensive right now that started after [the] zero-COVID [policy] was lifted,” ending COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. Wilder said, “... he wants to tell the world that China is open for business again. He wants very much to see American investors come back.”
Wilder said he thinks the incident will set off a new round of tension between the U.S. and China.
“If the United States is able to recover from the ocean information that shows that this indeed was a spy mission and not a meteorological mission and shows that evidence to the Chinese, we are going to embarrass the Chinese,” he said. “We may well very much embarrass the People's Liberation Army. And so, I think that that will be difficult to manage, particularly if the United States comes out very publicly with this information. So, there's going to be a tense period here.”
Another Chinese balloon was spotted flying over Latin America.