WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden, under fire from some lawmakers, said on Thursday he did not view a Chinese spy balloon that transited the United States before it was shot down in the Atlantic Ocean to have been a major security breach.
Biden, who has sought to maintain communications with China and not allow tensions with Beijing to get out of control, said in a Noticias Telemundo interview that he did not regret shooting down the balloon sooner.
“It’s not a major breach,” Biden said. “I mean, look, it’s totally … it’s a violation of international law. It’s our airspace. And once it comes into our space, we can do what we want with it.”
He said US military officials were worried that by shooting it down over land, the balloon and its parts could drop into a populated area.
“This thing was gigantic. What happened if it came down and hit a school in a rural area? What happened if it came down? So I told them as soon as they could shoot it down, shoot it down. They made a wise decision. They shot it down over water, they’re recovering most of the parts, and they’re good,” he said.
Biden on February 2 ordered the balloon shot down once it crossed into the northwestern United States, but acquiesced to the US military’s request to not act until it was over water.
The 200-foot-tall (61-meter) balloon, along with its undercarriage of electronic gadgetry, was shot down by a US fighter jet off the coast of South Carolina on February 4. The US military has been recovering as many parts as possible.
Some Republicans and Democrats have complained that Biden should have had the balloon downed sooner. The high-altitude surveillance balloon was first detected over Alaska on January 28.
The United States held briefings in Washington and Beijing with foreign diplomats from 40 nations about the Chinese spy balloon that entered US airspace in late January, a senior administration official and diplomats said on Tuesday.
US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman briefed nearly 150 foreign diplomats across 40 embassies on Monday, the official said, while in Beijing the US embassy gathered foreign diplomats on Monday and Tuesday to present US findings about the balloon.
“We want to make sure that we are sharing as much as we can with countries around the world who may also be susceptible to these types of operations,” the senior administration official said.
Sherman’s briefing was first reported by the Washington Post, which also quoted US officials saying the spy balloon was linked to an extensive military surveillance effort centred on China’s Hainan Island in the South China Sea.
While analysts did not yet know the size of the Chinese balloon fleet, US officials spoke of dozens of missions since 2018 across five continents, with some targeting Japan, India, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines.
The US State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Chinese military researchers have recently argued in publicly-available papers that balloons and airships should be further developed and deployed across a range of missions, Reuters reported on Monday.
The military operation involved technology from a private Chinese company that is part of China’s military-civilian fusion apparatus, the Washington Post reported. (Int’l Monitoring Desk)