(CNSNews.com) – The Chinese foreign and defense ministries on Sunday condemned the U.S. decision to shoot down what the Pentagon described as a Chinese spy balloon, and hinted that the People’s Liberation Army would respond in kind to future U.S. encroachments into its airspace.
“The U.S. attack on Chinese civilian unmanned airship by force is an obvious overreaction,” said defense ministry spokesman Tan Kefei, after a U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor fired a short-range missile to down the balloon off the coast of South Carolina.
“We solemnly protest this move by the U.S. side and reserve the right to take necessary measures to deal with similar situations.”
State media commentary said the U.S. frequently conducts aerial surveillance near Chinese airspace, including over the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea.
“Tan’s remark means that if a foreign airship accidentally enters the Chinese airspace, the Chinese forces could also shoot it down in a similar manner,” said Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party newspaper.
The foreign ministry called the downing of the balloon “an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice.”
“China will resolutely uphold the relevant company’s legitimate rights and interests, and at the same time reserving the right to take further actions in response,” it said.
Without identifying its purported ownership, Beijing claimed that the balloon was a “civilian” airship used for “mainly meteorological” research purposes, which had unintentionally drifted off course due to prevailing wind conditions and limitations to its “self-steering capability.”
The high-altitude balloon had first entered U.S. airspace near Alaska’s Aleutian islands last Saturday, according to a senior U.S. defense official. It crossed over Canada before re-entering U.S. airspace over Idaho on Tuesday. After seeking military options, President Biden authorized its downing “as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to us civilians under the balloon's path.”
“Military commanders determined that there was undue risk of debris causing harm to civilians while the balloon was overland,” said the official, briefing on background.
The balloon was shot down after it crossed the South Carolina coastline, and fell harmlessly into the ocean around six nautical miles off the coast, inside U.S. territorial waters. A U.S. Navy mission to recover the debris was underway.
Some Republican lawmakers had criticized the administration for not acting more quickly, noting among other things that the balloon had hovered over sensitive military facilities, including a U.S. Air Force base in Montana where silo-based Minutemen III intercontinental ballistic missiles are located.
Despite Beijing’s claims about the balloon’s steering limitations and about it having blown off course, the defense official said the path taken pointed to deliberate intelligence-gathering efforts.
“We are confident it was seeking to monitor sensitive military sites. Its route over the United States, near many potential sensitive sites, contradicts the PRC [People’s Republic of China] government’s explanation that it was a weather balloon.”
The official also said that precautions had been taken immediately to mitigate the intelligence value of the mission. The U.S. military did not assess the technology on the balloon had been able to obtain significant intelligence beyond what China already has – for example from satellites in low earth orbit.
“Shooting the balloon down addressed the surveillance threat posed to military installations and further neutralized any intelligence value it could have produced, preventing it from returning to the PRC,” the official said. “In addition, shooting the balloon down could enable the U.S. to recover sensitive PRC equipment.”
China’s foreign ministry complained that the U.S. shootdown came despite multiple communications with the U.S. in which it had “verified the situation” – about the supposed civilian nature of the airship and its accidental drifting over the U.S.
The U.S. defense official confirmed that U.S. officials had spoken directly with Chinese counterparts “through multiple channels – but rather than address their intrusion into our airspace, the PRC put out an explanation that lacked any credibility.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken abruptly postponed a scheduled visit to China, telling reporters on Friday that Beijing’s “decision to take this action on the eve of my planned visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have.”
He said he informed Beijing of the plan change in a phone conversation Friday with the CCP’s top foreign affairs official, Wang Yi.
Chinese media quoted Wang as having told Blinken in response that “China is a responsible country and has always strictly abided by international law. We do not accept any groundless speculation and hype.”
The CCP’s China Daily said Sunday the balloon incident was merely “an excuse” to postpone the visit; the actual reason was tied up in U.S. domestic politics, with the Republican and Democratic parties trying to outdo each other in their stance on China.
It said in an editorial that GOP criticism of the administration’s response “reflects the struggle between the two parties and how public demonstrations of which party is tougher on China has become part of their feuding.”
The paper said this “feuding” was “hindering” efforts to improve bilateral relations.
When Biden met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali in November, the two agreed to resume cooperation in a number of areas, “empower[ing] key senior officials to maintain communication and deepen constructive efforts,” according to the White House. Blinken’s planned visit was to have been part of that approach.
China Daily said the trip’s last-minute postponement showed that the U.S. government was either insincere, or lacked the capability to move forward in fixing relations, due to “the anti-China sentiment that prevails in Washington.”