Shooting Down the Spy Balloon Ended a Dramatic Chapter In a Diplomatic Crisis

From a New York Times story by Helene Cooper and Edward Wong headlined Shooting down the balloon ended a dramatic chapter in a diplomatic crisis”:

The United States shot down a Chinese spy balloon on Saturday that had spent the last week traversing the country, American officials said, an explosive end to a drama that put a diplomatic crisis between the world’s two great powers onto television screens in real time.

The balloon, which spent five days traveling in a diagonal southeast route from Idaho to the Carolinas, had moved off the coast by midday Saturday and was over the Atlantic Ocean. The Federal Aviation Administration had paused departures and arrivals at airports in Wilmington, N.C., and in Myrtle Beach and Charleston in South Carolina, which the agency said was meant to “support the Department of Defense in a national security effort.”

“I told them to shoot it down,” Mr. Biden told reporters, on his way to Camp David on Saturday. “They said to me, let’s wait until the safest place to do it.”

The president had been discussing military options with the Pentagon since Tuesday, when he was alerted by the Pentagon that a spy balloon had entered the continental American airspace near Idaho. By Wednesday, the balloon was hovering over Montana, and a full-blown diplomatic crisis was underway.

Military leaders advised then against shooting down the balloon, whose belly structure was roughly the size of three buses, because of the possibility of harm to civilians and infrastructure while it was over land. But the arrival — and extended stay — of the balloon over American territory prompted furious calls from senior U.S. officials to their Chinese counterparts, and the cancellation of Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s planned visit to China.

That trip would have been the first by a Biden Cabinet secretary to China.

Republican lawmakers and politicians began criticizing Mr. Biden on Thursday, after news of the balloon became widespread, for not taking harder action against the balloon and against China, and some demanded that Mr. Blinken cancel his trip.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Friday that the machine was a weather balloon that had strayed far — very far — off course and entered U.S. airspace by accident. But Mr. Blinken said the entry of the spy balloon was a “clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law.”

U.S. officials conveyed to Chinese officials several times in recent days that the U.S. military might shoot down the spy balloon. Mr. Blinken told a Chinese diplomat in Washington on Wednesday evening that the American government had the right to take any actions to protect its interests, and he said the same thing on a phone call on Friday with Wang Yi, the top Chinese foreign policy official, a senior administration official said.

U.S. officials are now watching closely for China’s reaction to the downing of the balloon — and whether the Chinese military will retaliate against an American asset.

Evan Medeiros, a Georgetown University professor who was senior Asia director on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, said the episode underscored the risks of accidents or miscalculation, as well as “the role of domestic politics in American debates about China — and the role of Congress in interpreting Chinese strategic intentions, including by constraining the administration’s options.”

The spy balloon began its controlled drift into American territory on Jan. 28, when it entered Alaskan airspace near the Aleutian Islands for what at first appeared to trackers at United States Northern Command to be just another one of China’s light probes around the edges of America’s defensive borders.

It had happened before. Military officials say that China has spy balloons orbiting around the world at 60,000 feet at any given time, and the balloons occasionally stray into American territory. Spy balloons from China and other adversaries are sometimes categorized by the Pentagon as unidentified aerial phenomena, which also includes U.F.O.s, the defense officials said.

But this balloon stayed. Although it exited American territory on Monday, officials said, carrying its solar panels that power propulsion and its cameras and surveillance equipment, the next day it was back. It entered the continental United States over Idaho, to the surprise of officials at Northern Command as well as at the Pentagon.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, alerted Mr. Biden. The president asked for military options.

By Wednesday, the balloon had made its way to the skies above Billings, Mont., which alarmed Pentagon officials because the state is home to the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, one of three U.S. Air Force bases that operate and maintain intercontinental ballistic missiles. One Pentagon official described shock at what officials viewed as a blatant, and poorly concealed, effort at spying. A White House official called the move “audacious.”

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, in the Philippines at the time, called a meeting on Wednesday of senior military and defense officials to review options, per Mr. Biden’s order. General Milley and Mr. Austin advised against shooting down the balloon while it was over land.

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