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China insists that its balloon was not spying as US launches recovery operation

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After crossing the Aleutian Islands and the entire continental United States, the Chinese balloon was finally brought down by U.S. fighter aircraft off the coast of South Carolina. According to U.S. officials, the balloon was flying over the country to collect intelligence on sensitive American military sites. 

F-22 Raptor fighter jets flying from Joint Base Langley-Eustis in southeastern Virginia fired a single AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile at the balloon, shooting it down at an altitude between 60,000 and 65,000 feet at 2:39 p.m. The Chinese balloon debris was scattered over nearly a seven-mile swath of the Atlantic near Myrtle Beach, SC. 

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that the president gave his authorization to shoot it down “as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives under the balloon’s path.”

President Biden had initially ordered the balloon brought down on Wednesday, but Pentagon officials convinced the president that shooting it down at the time posed a risk to people on the ground. 

China insisted that the balloon was a civilian aircraft performing meteorological duties, and said that America overreacted by shooting it down. However, Defense officials speaking on the condition of anonymity said that the Chinese are using surveillance equipment that isn’t compatible with meteorological research. 

“China will resolutely uphold the relevant company’s legitimate rights and interests, and at the same time [reserve] the right to take further actions in response,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

Related: The US is increasing its presence in the Philippines with an eye to China

A U.S. Air Force F-22 flies after being in-air refueled April 25, 2014, over the U.S. Central Command Area of responsibility by a KC-135 Stratotanker and aircrew from the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr./Released)

Relations between China and the U.S. have been getting worse for several years. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s scheduled upcoming trip to China was canceled on Friday following the balloon’s detection.

Pentagon press secretary BG Pat Ryder said there was another balloon over Latin America. “We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” he said.

Some members of Congress want to know why the military waited so long to act, making the US appear weak and indecisive. And they want answers from the administration.

Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-AL), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that “the White House must provide answers about why they decided to allow a CCP (Chinese Communist Party) spy balloon to cross the United States and what damage to our national security occurred from this decision.”

U.S. intelligence officials claim that they learned a lot about the balloon and its surveillance capabilities by studying it as it flew over the United States and that successfully recovering parts of the debris will help them learn more.

Navy and Coast Guard ships will aid in the recovery of the debris, which could be easier than first thought as it only fell at a depth of 47 feet. Once the debris is recovered, it is expected to be taken to the FBI lab at Quantico, VA, for analysis by experts.

Feature Image: The Chinese balloon (right) after it was hit by an F-22 (left). (Wikimedia Commons via Twitter)

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Steve Balestrieri