A suspected Chinese spy balloon in the sky over Billings, Montana. AFP/Chase Doak
WASHINGTON - The Biden administration lauded the Pentagon for shooting down an alleged Chinese spy balloon off the US Atlantic coast on Saturday, but China angrily voiced its "strong dissatisfaction" at the move and said it may make "necessary responses."
The craft spent several days flying over North America before it was targeted off the coast of the southeastern state of South Carolina with a missile fired from an F-22 plane, Pentagon officials said, falling into relatively shallow water just 14m deep.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called the operation a "deliberate and lawful action" that came in response to China's "unacceptable violation of our sovereignty."
READ: US will 'take care' of suspected China spy balloon: Biden
But China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs blasted the US action in a statement on Sunday morning, saying the downing of the "civilian" aircraft was "clearly overreacting and seriously violating international practice."
Saturday afternoon was the military's first chance to take down the balloon "in a way that would not pose a threat to the safety of Americans," a senior defense official told reporters, while still allowing authorities to collect the fallen debris from US territorial waters.
In eyewitness video posted to social media, the balloon appeared to disintegrate in a white puff before its remnants dropped vertically into the Atlantic Ocean below.
Twitter user Haley Walsh posted that she "heard and felt the explosion" in Myrtle Beach, a popular resort town in South Carolina.
Hello, there! Fighter jets flying around the balloon in Myrtle Beach, SC #ChineseSpyBalloon #Balloon pic.twitter.com/AJkQAzCgsN— Haley Walsh (@haleyewalsh) February 4, 2023
A US fighter jet on Saturday shot down an alleged Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina, the Pentagon said, over what it called Beijing's "unacceptable violation" of US sovereignty. AFP/Haley Walsh
Doesn’t look like a circular balloon anymore #ChineseSpyBalloon #Balloon pic.twitter.com/JG6ZgOZKa5— Haley Walsh (@haleyewalsh) February 4, 2023
President Joe Biden, who earlier Saturday had promised "to take care" of the balloon, congratulated the fighter pilots involved.
"They successfully took it down. And I want to compliment our aviators who did it," Biden told reporters in Maryland.
The controversy erupted on Thursday when American officials said they were tracking a large Chinese "surveillance balloon" in US skies.
READ: Chinese balloon advanced, hard to shoot down: US expert
That led Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday to scrap a rare trip to Beijing designed to contain rising US-China tensions.
After initial hesitation, Beijing admitted ownership of the "airship," but said it was a civilian weather balloon that had been blown off course and that it "regrets" the episode.
But after Saturday's operation, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed China's "strong dissatisfaction and protests against the use of force by the United States to attack the unmanned civilian airship."
Instead of responding in a "restrained manner," the ministry said in its statement, "the United States insisted on using force, clearly overreacting."
"China will resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of relevant enterprises and reserve the right to make further necessary responses," the statement added.
The balloon first entered US airspace over Alaska on January 28, Pentagon officials told reporters Saturday, before drifting over Canada and then back into the United States days later.