As the U.S. continues to search for the wreckage of an alleged Chinese spy balloon, Beijing criticized its shooting down as a dangerous overreaction that risked further damaging diplomatic ties.
China maintains the device was tracking weather conditions and was blown off course. In a statement published Monday, Vice-Foreign Minister Xie Feng said Washington had “turned a deaf ear and insisted on the indiscriminate use of force against a civilian airship that was about to leave U.S. airspace.”
This “obvious overreaction” has “seriously impacted and damaged both sides’ efforts and progress in stabilizing Sino-U.S. relations,” said Mr. Xie, who is expected to be named China’s next ambassador to the U.S.
Speaking to reporters in Beijing, a foreign ministry spokeswoman, Mao Ning, said the balloon’s entry into U.S. airspace was an “unexpected, isolated incident,” even as reports emerged of a second aircraft spotted over Latin America. Ms. Mao said that second device had “limited self-steering capability” and was for civilian purposes.
She urged the U.S. to respond to the ongoing controversy in a “calm and proper manner, without the use of force,” adding the incident was a test for “how to handle relations in a stable way.”
The balloon was detected over Montana on Thursday, having passed over parts of Western Canada and the U.S. After Washington lodged protests with Beijing, China released a statement saying the balloon was used for weather monitoring and had been blown off course, entering U.S. airspace due to “force majeure.”
Explainer: A suspected Chinese spy balloon entered U.S. airspace. Here’s what you need to know
Amid an increasingly heated debate in the U.S. over shooting the balloon down Saturday, the head of China’s meteorological administration, Zhuang Guotai, was removed from his post. It is unclear if Mr. Zhuang’s dismissal is related to the balloon, and no official reason was given. The move comes amid a wider reshuffling of officials ahead of a key meeting of the National People’s Congress in Beijing next month.
After U.S. jets were dispatched to end the balloon’s long journey, a senior Pentagon official again dismissed Chinese claims about weather monitoring as false. Speaking on background to reporters in Washington, the official said it was a surveillance balloon that had “purposely traversed the United States and Canada, and we are confident it was seeking to monitor sensitive military sites.”
The balloon did not pose a threat, the official added, but its “intrusion into American airspace over several days was an unacceptable violation of U.S. sovereignty.”
In China, many saw the shooting down of the balloon as reflective of growing paranoia in Washington over their country’s rise. Others mocked the sheer amount of resources – multiple fighter jets with support from U.S. and Canadian forces – used to take down a balloon that by the Pentagon’s own admission was not a threat or capable of continuing to gather intelligence.
“If more balloons, not necessarily from China, fly across the U.S., the U.S. Air Force would be exhausted and may even be bankrupted in intercepting them in this way,” said Global Times, a state-run tabloid.
Online, many referred to the aircraft as the “wandering balloon,” a nod to the current box office hit The Wandering Earth II, and posted memes comparing it to puffy white dumplings traditionally eaten during Lantern Festival, which took place Sunday.
The Biden administration previously said it had no intention of shooting down the balloon, given the potential risk from falling debris. Hu Xijin, a prominent commentator and former editor of a state-run newspaper, blamed partisan bickering and media pressure for the White House’s change in course.
“China is dealing with an America that gets drunk without drinking, suffering the enmity generated by its internal feuds that spill over into the international arena,” he wrote on Weibo.
Lü Xiang, a research fellow at the government-backed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told state media that “some forces in the U.S. do not want to see any room for easing China-U.S. relations,” and blamed them for “hyping up” the balloon incident.
As coverage of the balloon dominated U.S. media Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken cancelled a planned visit to Beijing due to take place over the weekend. He would have been the most senior administration official to go to China, building on a gradual diplomatic rapprochement that began when President Joe Biden met Chinese leader Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 in November.
In a statement, China’s foreign ministry denied any knowledge of the Blinken trip, however, saying “neither side” had ever formally announced it.
“One of the tasks of the diplomatic teams on both sides is to properly manage bilateral relations, particularly to manage some unexpected situations in a cool-headed and prudent manner,” it added.
With files from Reuters and Alexandra Li.
A suspected Chinese spy balloon has been flying over the United States for a couple of days, U.S. officials said on Thursday, in what would be a brazen act just days ahead of a planned trip to Beijing by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.