China: U.S. violated ‘international practice’ in shooting down spy balloon

China expressed outrage Sunday over the U.S. military’s shooting down a day earlier of a Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina, as the Navy began retrieving the wreckage from the Atlantic Ocean and the political rhetoric ramped up in Washington.

Fallout from the balloon incident, which some are describing as a dangerous turning point in an evolving new Cold War between America and China, rocked the national security community through the weekend, with the Pentagon confirming the discovery of a second balloon floating over Latin America. 

While Beijing has yet to acknowledge a second, giant white orb spotted roughly 60,000 feet over Costa Rica, Chinese officials accused Washington of acting irrationally by dispatching U.S. fighter jets to shoot down the first spy craft discovered at a similar altitude over the U.S. last week. 

“The U.S. use of force is a clear overreaction and a serious violation of international practice,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement, adding that Beijing “reserves the right to make further responses if necessary.” 

With uncertainty coursing over what may come next, domestic politics tied to the incident turned biting Sunday, with Democrats accusing Republicans of hypocrisy for criticizing President Biden’s handling of the situation just days before he delivers his State of the Union address on Tuesday.

Mr. Biden waited several days before ordering Saturday’s shootdown of the balloon that analysts say was outfitted with some 700 pounds of high-tech surveillance equipment. The spy craft was allowed to fly across a large swath of the United States, soaking up imagery and other intelligence, before being punctured some six miles off South Carolina’s coast by what some reports described as a heat-seeking missile from an F-22 fighter.

SEE ALSO: McConnell: China made a ‘mockery of our airspace’ with spy balloon

Sen. Cory Booker cited claims by the Biden administration that other Chinese spy balloons had been spotted over U.S. territory in recent years, including during the Trump administration, which had apparently decided not to shoot the surveillance vehicles out of the sky.

“It’s problematic for a Democrat or Republican to have one standard for one president, another standard for another president,” the New Jersey Democrat and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, claiming that “this is now known to have happened under the Trump administration multiple times.”

His allegations came amid reports that House Republicans are readying a resolution to criticize Mr. Biden’s response to the balloon, while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell upped the GOP’s condemnation of the president’s decision to allow the spy craft to travel over several sensitive national security sites, including Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force base, which is home to one of the U.S. military’s three nuclear missile silo fields.

“As usual when it comes to national defense and foreign policy, the Biden administration reacted at first too indecisively and then too late,” Mr. McConnell said in a statement. “We should not have let the People’s Republic of China make a mockery of our airspace.”

The Kentucky Republican also blasted Mr. Biden’s assertion that he had directed the Pentagon to shoot the balloon down as quickly as possible but with safety precautions in mind amid concerns about potential damage to property and lives from the wreckage.

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“It defies belief to suggest there was nowhere between the Aleutian Islands of Alaska and the coast of Carolina where this balloon could have been shot down right away without endangering Americans or Canadians,” Mr. McConnell said. “This was a reminder of [China’s] brazenness, and President Biden missed the opportunity to defend our sovereignty, send a message of strength and bolster deterrence.”

SEE ALSO: Defending Biden’s response to China spying, Schumer says Senate to get classified briefing on threat

House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Mike Turner similarly blasted Mr. Biden. “The president taking it down over the Atlantic is sort of like tackling the quarterback after the game is over,” Mr. Turner told “Meet the Press.”

“The satellite had completed its mission,” the Ohio Republican said. “It should never have been allowed to enter the United States.”

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer shot back Sunday, calling the GOP criticisms “premature” and driven purely by “politics.” Mr. Schumer said the Biden administration acted in a “calm, calculating [and] effective” manner by taking down the balloon over water where it posed minimal risk.

A spokesperson for the New York Democrat said a briefing on the Chinese threat will be given to all senators on Feb. 15, according to NBC News, which noted that a classified China briefing for senators had previously been scheduled for that date, before news of the balloon broke.

Although the debris landed across an area roughly seven miles wide, sources say that because pieces of the Chinese balloon fell into Atlantic waters less than 50 feet deep, U.S. Navy divers are likely to retrieve valuable elements of it.

‘Top Gun’ moment

The balloon prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday to abruptly cancel a planned visit to Beijing that the administration had hoped would ease U.S.-China tensions over a range of issues, including China’s threats to Taiwan and its tacit support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.

China says the balloon was merely a weather research “airship” blown off course. The Pentagon has rejected that, as well as Beijing’s claim the spying craft was not being used for surveillance and had only limited navigational ability.

U.S. officials say it was part of a fleet of balloons Beijing has been using in recent years to conduct surveillance around the globe, maneuvering the vehicles remotely through small motors and propellers.

The Pentagon confirmed reports over the weekend of another balloon flying over Latin America. “We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement.

The discovery of the balloon over Latin America came after U.S. residents had spent days wondering whether the mysterious balloon had floated over them.

On Saturday, Ashlyn Preaux, 33, went out to get her mail in Forestbrook, South Carolina, and noticed her neighbors looking up — and there it was, the balloon in the cloudless blue sky.

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Then she saw fighter jets circling and the balloon get hit. “I did not anticipate waking up to be in a ‘Top Gun’ movie today,” she told The Associated Press.

U.S. officials said Saturday that the balloon entered the U.S. air defense zone north of the Aleutian Islands on Jan. 28 and moved largely over land across Alaska and then into Canadian airspace in the Northwest Territories on Monday. It crossed back into U.S. territory over northern Idaho on Tuesday, the day the White House said Mr. Biden was first briefed on it.

The balloon was then spotted Wednesday over Montana, where Malmstrom Air Force Base hosts 150 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles.

A ‘near-space’ system

Officials were able to collect intelligence on the balloon as it flew over the U.S., learning how it moved and what it was capable of surveilling, according to two senior defense officials, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity. They said the U.S. military concluded the technology on the balloon didn’t give the Chinese significant intelligence beyond what it could obtain from satellites.

However, other military analysts suspect the balloon, which can take high-resolution images and measure temperatures, atmospheric and weather conditions, was what is considered a “near-space” system, capable of gathering information that could be used by the Chinese military for ICBM targeting.

China is engaged in a large-scale buildup of long-range nuclear missiles. Three large missile fields were recently identified in western China that will house up to 320 multi-warhead ICBMs.

Data from the balloon also could be used for hypersonic missiles, which fly along the edge of space at very high speeds and can maneuver on the way to targets.

Some military analysts also suspect the balloon has enough capacity to carry a small nuclear warhead that could be used to create an electronics-killing electromagnetic pulse over wide areas.

Former Air Force officer David Stuckenberg has said such balloons could be used for an electromagnetic pulse attack that could damage all electronics over a 500-mile area.

“Using a balloon as a [weapon of mass destruction] platform could provide adversaries with a pallet of altitudes and payload options with which to maximize offensive effects against the U.S.” Mr. Stuckenberg stated in a recent report by the American Leadership and Policy Foundation.

Separately, a 2020 report by four officials at the Chinese Academy of Sciences stated that China’s high-altitude, balloon-based sensor systems “are kind of a large-scale unmanned aerial vehicle.”

“A high-altitude balloon can carry a large load up to tens of kilometers in the near space for a long time, which brings a new way for the stratosphere atmospheric detection,” the report said.

The report identified three tests of the balloon that is outfitted with 700 pounds of equipment, including six cameras that monitor all directions. The balloon tests mentioned in the report involved altitudes of 13 miles or about 63,000 feet.

• Ramsey Touchberry, Joseph Clark and Mike Glenn contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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